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D.C. Police Sgt. Brett Parson Discusses Trangender Killings

In Washington, D.C., police now take crime against sexual minorities seriously. A seasoned street cop explains how and why in this exclusive interview.

When Metropolitan Police Sgt. Brett Parson arrives for an interview in a local coffee shop, he's already been up for 18 hours, since he got a 3 a.m. call informing him of the vicious shooting of a transgendered woman, the latest in a long string of such assaults (see Disposable People).

He won't be going to bed any time soon, either. First, he has to meet with a young gay dancer from a local club who's been sexually assaulted but is uncertain if he wants to press charges.

This is a fairly typical day for Parson, who heads up the Washington, D.C., department's acclaimed Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU), which was created in June 2000 and is composed of openly gay and lesbian members of the department and their allies. Members of GLLU assist in criminal investigations, but they also reach out to communities of sexual minorities.

Although much distrust still remains between police officers and gays, lesbians and transgendered people, Parson's unit has made great strides in improving this often charged relationship.

Parson himself is gay. He is also very much a cop's cop, a man with an infectious sense of humor who says he prefers "kicking doors in" and arresting criminals to singing "Kumbaya."

Still, he points out that in a week, his unit will receive an award from an African-American transgender group. "I don't know of any other police unit ever getting an award from the transgender community," he says with a chuckle. "That's for sure."

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: There was a notorious incident in 1995 involving a transgendered woman, Tyra Hunter, who'd been in a car accident.

Once the responding firefighters realized she was a transgendered person, they stopped treating her. She was also refused treatment by a doctor at the hospital and died. Her mother sued the city and won in 1999.

Was the creation of the GLLU a response to that?

BRETT PARSON: No, it was more a response to two lesbian officers who did some research into hate crimes. The results were staggering and embarrassing.

In 1998, Maryland and Virginia reported about 200 hate crimes, total. D.C. reported two. You can see what the problem was!

The officers put together a proposal that said, we think two things are at play here, particularly in the gay community: One, our cops are not trained properly. They don't know what questions to ask, and then once they get the information, they don't know what the hell to do with it.

Secondly, people in this community don't trust us or like us. That's a historical problem because of the violence that's traditionally occurred between law enforcement and the GLBT [gay/lesbian/ bisexual/transgendered] community.

The chief made those two liaisons, but gave them no resources at all. They survived about a year, and were instrumental in solving an anti-gay murder at Gallaudet University because they were able to talk to gay deaf students there.

But after that, they were very frustrated, and so they made three recommendations to the chief: "You need a gay boy, you need a gay boy that has some rank, and you need a gay boy that has rank and doesn't give a damn what people think about him."

IR: And you fit the profile?

PARSON: Well, I didn't volunteer, let's put it that way. I was in charge of the major narcotics strike force at the time, and was very happy there and didn't want to be the gay poster child.

But I got a call from the chief's office asking, "How would you feel about it?" I said, "No." And they said, "Well, you were already transferred. We just want to know how you feel about it." I've been here ever since.

IR: How do you feel about it now?

PARSON: This is a really nice job. I work primarily with people who are talented, caring, incredible people in the community. The downside is that I'm not doing the kind of police work that I became an officer to do. That oftentimes frustrates me.

I don't really want to be sitting inside Caribou Coffee on Friday night; I want to be responding to calls and chasing people and getting in fights and shoot-outs and things like that.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that the chief did the right thing in keeping us alive. And unfortunately, I don't think I'll be out of a job any time soon. We still have a lot of officers that are not up to par on how to deal with the GLBT community, and the relationship with this community still isn't where it needs to be.

IR: Are there other units like yours in other police departments?

PARSON: I do not believe there is another unit of this kind in the country. There are gay and lesbian liaison units all over the place, but what we do is not just outreach, the huggy-feely, "Kumbaya" stuff that all liaison units should be doing.

We police. We're on the street. We patrol the areas where the GLLU community is visible. We attend events where police have never gone before, and there are many of those! And we investigate crimes — by and against the GLBT community.

Many people think, what the hell's the difference? An assault's an assault, a robbery is a robbery. But there is some specificity when you're dealing with same-sex relationships, when you're dealing with sexual assaults on the same gender, or when you're dealing with hate crimes. It takes a specialization for that.

I can tell by the calls I'm getting from other agencies around the country, using us as a resource, that this isn't what goes on elsewhere. What they have is usually one or two people assigned to go to the local pride festival, to show up at community meetings and say, "Hi, we care about you."

But we do training, education, outreach and law enforcement, 24/7.

IR: So now, two years into the effort, how many hate crimes did the District report in 2002?

PARSON: We just reported 17. It's up well over 600% since 1998. That's good. It's a sign that we're slowly building the trust that we need to have with this community and that we're educating our officers to the point where they're actually reporting these things.

IR: Transgendered people say that it's more dangerous in Washington for them than even for gays and lesbians. Do you agree?

PARSON: Perception is 90% of everything. If they perceive that it's dangerous, then it's dangerous.

Of course, the transgender community is not just one kind of individual. You have everything from transsexuals to transvestites to drag queens to drag kings to commercial street sex workers. Then you have folks who completely assimilate into the community and pass.

There's no doubt that members of the transgender community in Washington, D.C., who are people of color are being victimized at a much higher rate than those who are not people of color.

IR: Some would say they're putting themselves at risk — especially those involved in prostitution.

PARSON: I don't know if that's fair. Would we do that with victims of car theft? With victims of burglary? Do we say, "Hey, you shouldn't have moved into that neighborhood?"

I don't entertain that. I think it's disrespectful to the victims.

The fact is, whether they're engaged in legal or illegal activities, they're being victimized at a higher rate than other people. When we're talking about commercial street sex, I understand why they're doing it, though I can't really empathize, because I'm just a dopey white guy.

What do I know from being transgender and kicked out of the house and trying to get medication and hormones and training and education? I've got it great compared to them. When they tell me they're forced to go on the streets, which puts them in a position to be victimized, who am I to question?

Whether you're a prostitute, a bus driver, a retired U.S. Capitol police officer — all of whom I know as transgendered people — you don't deserve to be the victim of a crime.

And that's hard to get through to the general population, sometimes even to the GLB part of the community. They don't understand transgendered people a lot of times, either. Once you get out of the GLBT community, there's a total lack of understanding toward their plight and the circumstances they're living with.

IR: What are some of the basic challenges of dealing with transgendered people?

PARSON: For one thing, learning to refer to them the way they want to be referred to. You're sitting here across from me, a white male in his late 30s, and if you tell me your name is Betty, why the hell should I care? Now, there are some instances where your legal name is important to us, but there are appropriate ways to ask that question.

I can say, "Betty, I understand this is the name you want me to use to refer to you. I can't use that on the report. I will certainly put down that that's your preference, but I need your legal name, and I hope you understand."

That's not disrespectful, that's not irrelevant, that's not unprofessional. Compare it to, "Listen, buddy, don't give me this shit that your name's Betty, give me your real name."

IR: Are there parts of the GLBT community that are particularly tough to deal with?

PARSON: There are two segments where I'm having to focus my educational efforts. One is the transgender community; the other is youth of color. I've presented at youth conferences and literally been asked to leave, because they did not want police officers there. That was an eye-opening experience because I thought I'd be welcomed with open arms.

What I learned was: this is their safe space. If I want to learn from them, it's got to be on their terms. Cops have to learn that.

So often, if the door doesn't open, we kick it in. You can't do that when you're talking about the gay community. That's hard for me. I'm a street cop. I'm a door-kicker. That's my personality.

I really have to temper that side and think with my counseling side — believe it or not, I have a degree in counseling — and think, ok, what's going on here? Why am I getting a bad reaction? What do I portray to them?

So I dress down. I still have my gun, my badge, and they still recognize me as a police officer. But it's not as hard core. There are times when they have to see me in that hard-core role. But when I'm coming into their safe space, I need to try and be respectful.

IR: What's the hardest thing in helping other police officers learn these things?

PARSON: Police officers are generally very polar people. It's either legal or it's illegal. It's either right or it's wrong. Yes or no. Good guy, bad guy. Man, woman, gay, straight. You're getting arrested or you're not getting arrested.

Trangenderism challenges that polarity, because you can be looking at someone who is clearly exhibiting all the traits of A and they say they're B. And that can't be, right? You can't do that!

And then, you throw in the technical and legal issues transgender people present for us: How do you refer to them in paperwork? Where do you house them as prisoners? Who has to search them? Holy shit! You just rocked our world.

That's what I deal with: A cop saying, "I don't care. If it looks like a man, I'm calling it him." Or, "If his ID says Bob, his name is Bob. I don't care what he says. He's a man."

IR: How do you broach these subjects with other officers?

PARSON: First, I understand how cops deal with stress. They have to laugh. Either that, or they beat people up, or they smoke, or they drink, or they do other things that are bad for them. I prefer laughter.

So I try and approach these subjects that way. But trust me, it's uncomfortable. I'll stand in front of the biggest, butchest guy in the room, as straight as he can be, and I get in his space. I crowd him, put my groin in his face — he's sitting down, I'm standing up — and say, "Hey, big boy, how does it feel?"

We talk about his reaction. We talk about his discomfort. We talk about professionalism. We talk about, "If I were a woman and did that to you in a bar, how would you react? You'd be getting my phone number. Why is it different now? Why does that challenge your being?"

We talk about why there's anger. For some, there's sadness, because they have family members dealing with being gay or transgendered. For others, it's an epiphany: "I've never thought about it like that!"

I do this exercise where I go around the room and call people names: You're a "n-----," you're a "s---," you're a "c----," every name I can think of. And people react. Oh, do people react!

And I stop and say, "Okay, what do you feel about me right now? If you as a police officer heard these words directed at a co-worker, or somebody on the street, would you react? Of course, you'd do something. But how many times have you heard the word 'f-----' come out of somebody's mouth and didn't have the same feeling?"

Most people admit, all the time. So I say, "Okay, how's that word different? Why doesn't it deserve the same stigma? What's behind that?"

I've had some people afterwards say, "Next time my kid says, 'That's so gay,' I'm giving them a hand upside the head. I'd never thought about this before."

Metropolitan Police Sgt. Brett Parson

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.