D.C. Police Sgt. Brett Parson Discusses Trangender Killings
IR: How does your unit aid in investigations of violent crimes?
PARSON: We let our violent crime unit do their job. They're the professionals. But we lend them the kind of expertise in the GLBT community that they often don't have.
Some violent-crime detectives are very comfortable going into gay bars or going out on the stroll where the transgendered girls are to look for witnesses.
But others will page me and say, "Hey, Brett, here's who I'm looking for, somebody named Boo Boo, a he/she/it, whatever you call it," in classic cop form. "Can you help me here? 'Cause I understand this person saw what happened." And I'll say, "Yeah, absolutely."
I think the partnership works. That's been proven, because since the GLLU has been around, the closure rate for violent crimes in the GLBT community is in the 90% range. [That figure refers to reported assaults; the majority of assaults are still not reported to police.]
IR: That's a remarkable statistic.
PARSON: Yeah. I'd love to take credit and say it's because the GLLU is here. But it's really because the GLBT community has increasingly stepped forward and said, "We're not afraid to talk to the police."
IR: How many of the crimes against transgendered people in the last couple of years have been officially classified as hate crimes?
PARSON: Officially? One. The only one that we've actually classified as a hate/bias-motivated crime was the murder of Bella Evangelista [a popular transgender performer].
We caught the guy immediately, and he admitted that he shot Evangelista because someone told him she was a he. They were engaging in sex for hire, he liked it, the act was completed, they parted ways, the third party said, "Hey, man, that's a dude," and he returned and he shot her.
In that case, classifying it as a hate crime was easy.
IR: But that's usually not the case?
PARSON: No. We're on 14th Street right now, an area that's transitioning. You get a lot of robberies and assaults here. A lot of the victims are gay. Does that mean they're hate crimes, because the people who are being victimized are gay?
How do I prove that the suspect is choosing victims based on their sexual orientation? It's 14th Street. Gay people are a dime a dozen here. Do I suspect this person has chosen 14th Street as their area of trade because there are fairly well off gay guys who appear to be vulnerable?
My personal opinion is, yes. But can I prove it? Not a chance in hell.
IR: You'd have a hard time convincing GLBT activists that the other recent murders in D.C. weren't hate-motivated like Evangelista's.
PARSON: And I can see why. I think we'd be hard-pressed to find many people who don't have a bias against transgendered people. I have a bias, I know that. They're different. They challenge us. And because of that, they're less likely to be assimilated into the greater community.
So I think that in part, yes, they were all targeted because they're part of the transgender community. But you can almost never prove it.
IR: What's it like dealing with the families of transgendered victims?
PARSON: Last night was an exception. We were able to notify the family right away, they came to the hospital and were very supportive. That's very unusual.
In the majority of cases in the transgender community, just getting their given names is a real challenge. You're dealing with people living in a very marginalized world, an anonymous world, and a world where their families have often lost touch with them if not pushed them away.
What's even tougher is cases where these girls are killed, and I have numbers of their families and also numbers of their friends — their adopted families.
The blood relatives refer to them in the masculine, by their birth names, and their friends refer to them in the effeminate, with their chosen names. What do you do when you're addressing that entire group?
What I say is, at the very beginning, "I don't want to offend anyone here. But I know that she preferred to use the name X, and that she preferred to live as a woman. I'm going to refer to her that way, out of respect for her." Even those people I offend have come up to me afterwards and said, "Thank you for at least putting it out there."
IR: Given how difficult this work is, do you find it frustrating?
PARSON: What we do can make a huge difference to each individual. That's how I keep myself sane.
I rationalize it this way: I can make a difference for 24 hours at a time. If someone hurts you, I can arrest them and take them off the street and know you'll be safe for the next 24 hours. After that, all bets are off. You may get hurt again tomorrow. But I can make a difference then, again.
It's the only job in the world I know where you can make an immediate difference in people's pain. Doctors can't do it, judges can't do it, but I can do it.