As events in New Orleans
have reminded us with sobering clarity, the measure of a society is not how
it tends to the well-off and well-connected but how it protects the
vulnerable, the voiceless and the victimized. Today, with the release of
Amnesty International’s new report, it is clear that police across the
United States have failed to protect the human rights of lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender people and have committed serious abuses against
Let me state from the outset that
this is not a blanket condemnation of law enforcement. Many police officers
work hard to defend the rights of every citizen without regard to sexual
orientation, gender, race, class or ethnicity. Much progress has been made
in the thirty-six years since the Stonewall riots against police abuse and
repression in New York City that spawned the LGBT rights movement and from
which our report takes its name.
But we must call to account those
who have misused police power and committed human rights violations against
the LGBT community, including abuses that are tantamount to torture. It is a
sorry state of affairs when police officers misuse their power to inflict
suffering rather than prevent it, but that is precisely what Amnesty
International’s new report has found.
Our report describes a shameful
state of affairs. It makes clear that if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or
transgender, certain laws and ordinances, such as vague “morals” regulations
or quality of life statutes, may be selectively enforced against you . And
if you are a transgender person, a person of color, if you were born outside
the United States or if you are young or low income, your chances of being
abused are even greater. For example, officers approached a Latina
transgender woman in New York and asked her, “are your breasts implants or
hormones?” and “what’s up with your genitalia?” One officer then asked her
to show him her breasts. She was afraid so she complied. He then let her go.
If you are an LGBT person and the
police are summoned to a domestic dispute that involves physical abuse,
police reportedly often fail to respond or respond inappropriately. They may
arrest both parties, or, if the victim is a person of color or transgender,
the police sometimes even assume the victim to be the abuser. If you are an
LGBT person and the victim of a “hate crime,” the police may not recognize
the incident as such or assume you provoked the violence.
Quite simply, Amnesty
International’s new report finds that police abuse and misconduct against
members of the LGBT community is a persistent and widespread problem across
the United States. It is unacceptable that those who are charged with the
grave responsibility of protecting our safety – the safety of all of us –
are not only derelict in their duty but also are guilty of committing human
rights abuses. A badge must never be a shield for abuse.
Let me illustrate what kinds of
abuse we are talking about with a horrific, but by no means atypical,
account. You will find it on the first page of our report. One day, deputies
from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department ordered Kelly McAllister, a
white transgender woman, out of her parked car. She refused. Perhaps this
was not a prudent decision, but it hardly called for what followed. The
deputies reportedly beat her, pepper sprayed her, “hog tied” her, and
dragged her across the pavement face down.
Two weeks later, she was again in
the custody of the Sheriff’s Department at the Sacramento County Main Jail
and placed in a prison cell with a male inmate who struck, choked, bit and
raped her. Hospital medical staff who treated her confirmed that she had
been sexually assaulted. The response of some in the Sheriff’s Department?
To allegedly taunt her with accusations that she enjoyed being the victim of
a sexual assault.
Following her release, McAllister
filed a complaint. The Sheriff’s Department investigated. The rapist
accepted a plea of “unlawful intercourse in jail” and drew a three-month
sentence. As for the deputies who set this chain of events in motion--they
weren’t even subject to an investigation.
Sometimes sexual, physical and
verbal abuse by law enforcement officers occurs simultaneously. The reported
verbal assaults range from name-calling to sexual taunts: “You need a real
man” or “Try me and you won't be a lesbian,” “freak,” “he/she/it,” “dyke,”
“faggot,” “sissy” or “princess.” Police officers have reportedly roughed-up
LGBT individuals, beaten and kicked them. And they have allegedly committed
acts of rape and other forms of sexual assault that are tantamount to
torture and ill treatment.
Our report finds that police
profile LGBT people as criminal in a number of different contexts and
selectively enforce laws relating to “morals regulations” and quality of
life. The targeting of LGBT people of color by law enforcement mirrors the
systemic racism found in policing in the United States in general.
Transgender individuals in particular report being profiled as being
involved in suspicious activity, as sex workers or as criminals while going
about everyday business.
The report also documents incidents
of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of LGBT individuals during arrest
and searches and while in police detention. Transgender people and
individuals who do not conform to stereotypes about gender report that
during searches police have sometimes inappropriately touched their genitals
to establish their “true” sex or conducted personal body searches in public.
Perhaps this is predictable. Our
researchers surveyed the largest police department in every state, as well
as Washington, DC, and San Antonio, to learn about their interactions with
and responses to LGBT people, their training practices and detention
procedures. We found that only 24 percent of the 29 police departments that
responded have a policy regarding strip searches of transgender people and
only one in three has a policy on detention of transgender people.
It was striking that only 38
percent of the responding departments have an LGBT liaison officer. Less
than one in five – only 17 percent – have policies on how to deal with
same-sex domestic violence. And only 24 percent have a policy or practice
governing the investigation of sexual assault against LGBT people.
We should acknowledge, however,
that 69 percent of the departments responding report that they provide
training on issues relating to LGBT people and communities. The work of
Sergeant Brett Parson of Washington, DC, in training and other areas is a
fine example for the rest of the country.
But we need many more Sergeant
Parsons. We must work to change police attitudes and behavior because too
frequently homophobia and transphobia – prejudice against transgender people
– among law enforcement personnel trigger abuse. As the cases in this report
demonstrate, police have committed numerous abusive and humiliating acts
with brazen impunity. One might say that this pattern of impunity has
encouraged a climate in which insensitive and cruel actions against the LGBT
individuals are excused or ignored.
Even though international law, as
well as some state and local laws, prohibit discrimination on the basis of
sexual orientation and gender identity, if the guardians of the law
themselves are guilty of a persistent pattern of abuse—as our report
suggests—then we are all at risk.
Here in New York City, our report
finds that police abuse of LGBT people is a serious and widespread problem,
mirroring our national findings. In particular, our researchers found
patterns of police abuse and misconduct involving discriminatory enforcement
of quality of life ordinances against LGBT youth and transgender people of
color. We also heard reports of transgender women being unfairly profiled as
sex workers. This frequently occurs in areas of increasing gentrification,
including the West Village, the site of the Stonewall riots and an area that
traditionally provided a safe space for LGBT individuals. While the NYPD has
improved relations with the LGBT community, the department must institute
reforms, including adopting specific policies on searching and detaining
transgender individuals and ensuring that police don’t selectively enforce
quality of life regulations.
Although the findings of our report
are both disheartening and alarming, it is the reality of each individual
human tragedy that arouses our ire and spurs us to action. We hear the call
when a police officer reportedly rapes a lesbian at gunpoint, as one woman
in Athens, Georgia, alleged, and told her that “the world needed at least
one less dyke and he was going to make sure that happened.”
We hear it when State troopers set
out to entrap gays near Detroit in an operation that they tauntingly called
“bag a fag.”
And we hear it when a transgender
woman reports an abuse of power such as a police officer in the Washington,
DC, area who stated, “You do it with me, or I’m going to arrest you for
If we are serious about protecting
human rights, then case by case, city by city, state by state we must speak
out. In the case of Kelly McAllister, Amnesty International is calling on
the public to write to the Sheriff’s Department to demand a full and
transparent investigation into her treatment. The findings should be made
public and those responsible disciplined.
Amnesty International calls on
police departments everywhere, but particularly in our target cities, to
sign our Pledge for Professionalism, affirming their commitment to combat
discrimination and violence against LGBT people. We want it on record that
they will do the following:
■ Send a clear message to all
officers that abuse and ill treatment of LGBT people will not be tolerated.
■ Ensure that all allegations and
reports of police abuse and misconduct are promptly, thoroughly and
impartially investigated, and that officers found responsible are held
■ Ensure the safety of LGBT
individuals while in detention.
These are among an extensive set of
recommendations in our report, and we urge all law enforcement agencies and
citizen review boards to consider and adopt them with haste. We realize that
pledges and programs can easily become empty gestures without the continued
vigilance of human rights advocates. For that reason, today Amnesty begins
to focus its spotlight on this persistent and shameful situation.
Amnesty International will mobilize
our worldwide membership to exert pressure on police and city, state and
federal authorities to protect LGBT people from police abuse and misconduct.
We will issue public actions on individual cases of police abuse and
brutality to ensure that all allegations are fully and impartially
investigated and that officers found guilty are brought to justice.
Our spotlight will not dim until
the human rights that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people are
guaranteed in law and are also protected in the real world. Thank you.