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Police and Trans People: A Fraught Relationship

A transgender woman calls 911. She’s terrified. Her boyfriend has just beaten her up and he’s still menacing her in their apartment.

Please hurry.

The police arrive, slap handcuffs on the boyfriend and are about to take him off to jail when he says, wait a minute, she’s a he.

Smirking, the police officers check the victim’s ID. When the name and gender marker on the document do not match the image of the battered woman standing before them, pleading for their protection, the officers release the boyfriend and leave.

A few minutes later, the boyfriend beats her up again for calling the police.

“It’s not an uncommon story,” says Josie Paul, director of the TransLife Center of Chicago House, a social services agency for LGBT people. “There are individuals that I know, similar situations, calling the police for domestic violence, and not only was the violent man not taken in, but sometimes the trans woman was taken in instead. Conventional wisdom among transgender women is that the last thing you want to do is call the police.”

The relationship between the police and transgender men and women, particularly trans people of color, has long been filled with hostility and mistrust. Trans people complain bitterly about the police being disrespectful, using the wrong gender pronouns and profiling them as sex workers for simply walking down the street — “walking while trans.”

“We’re just tired of the police fucking with us,” says a young trans woman in Ohio.

The police seem to be trying to change — at least on paper. In recent years, police departments across the country, including departments in Chicago, Atlanta and New York, have written new policies and protocols aimed at doing a better job of serving and protecting transgender Americans.

In Chicago, after more than two years of pushing and lobbying by transgender advocates, the police department adopted a general order that mandates the respectful treatment of transgender detainees in 2012, according to the Windy City Times, which covers Chicago’s LGBT communities.

“We worked very closely with the transgender community to write the general order,” the supervisor of the department’s civil rights/hate crimes unit, Sgt. Lori Cooper, tells the Intelligence Report.

But just because a department may have “a good policy on paper about documents, pronouns, and searches,” cautions Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, “doesn’t mean they have a culture of accountability and are tackling all forms of bias.”

Still, Tobin points to the Miami Beach Police Department as a department implementing “positive practices” that she hopes will be more than a “public-relations band-aid.”

The policy, the department’s standard operating procedure (SOP) for “transgender interactions,” applies to all members of the department and covers everything from “Addressing Individuals” to “Stop and Frisk” to “Transgender Juveniles.”

It explains who transgender men and women are and includes definitions for “gender expression,” “birth sex” and “gender identity.”

It says that all employees “shall address a transgender individual using the person’s clearly stated gender identity.”

A stop, frisk or search, the policy says, “shall not be performed for the sole purpose of determining an individual’s anatomical gender” — a common complaint among transgender women in particular.

The policy also has something to say indirectly about walking while trans. It says officers should not “treat a transgender individual or person who appears to be transgender as the basis of suspicion and/or evidence of a crime.”