Rosendall gives short history of community-police relations
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Rosendall gives short history of community-police relations to Amnesty International

A Short History of Police Relations with the Gay Community in DC
Presented by Richard J. Rosendall
Vice President for Political Affairs
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC
Community meeting on police interactions with LGBT people
Amnesty International USA

Wednesday, November 19, 2003


The discriminatory targeting of gay citizens by the Metropolitan Police Department dates back to 1950, when the Cold War was raging and the District of Columbia was ruled directly by the U.S. Congress. That year, Senator Wherry held a hearing and ordered MPD to identify gay civil service employees and report their names to the U.S. Civil Service Commission so they could then be fired. As gay movement pioneer Frank Kameny says, "The infamous Chief Roy Blick of the MPD Morals Division testified to knowledge of some 5000 or so homosexuals in civil service employment here in Washington — a number he later admitted to having invented out of whole cloth." Thus the Perversion Subsection of the Morals Division was born. Police used the so-called SLIP provision of DC law — Solicitation for Lewd and Immoral Purposes — to entrap gays. In one unintentionally hilarious incident about forty years ago, two different groups of plainclothes vice cops were both working Lafayette Square on the same night without knowing it, and they started arresting one another.

In 1958 or '59, before there was an organized gay rights movement in Washington, Frank Kameny wrote to Chief Blick saying that he would oppose efforts to increase the size of the police force "unless they stopped wasting the resources they already had by hounding and harassing harmless homosexuals." Blick agreed to meet with Frank, who says, "Among the things I learned at that meeting was the MPD would not object to same sex dancing in bars, which I passed on, leading to Washington's first public gay dances at the Chicken Hut ... a few years later."

Frank Kameny founded the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961. Not long afterwards, a police raid on a gay bar called the Gayety provoked DC's first show of organized gay community strength. Kameny and his colleagues demanded and got a meeting with Chief Blick and laid down the law as to what they would and would not tolerate. That was the last bar raid in Washington, years before Stonewall.

Key to our progress in these early years, and to all that followed, was the fact that Frank Kameny virtually invented gay militancy. He had lost his own federal job thanks to President Eisenhower's Executive Order 10450 declaring homosexuals to be security risks. Before Frank came along, gays who were entrapped had not fought back, but just slunk quietly away. Frank declared war. He was the first to appeal to the Supreme Court over such a dismissal. He lost his case (he was denied a writ of certiorari), but that only energized his activism. Frank was and is confident, unapologetic, bold, imaginative, persistent, and absolutely determined to win the full rights of citizenship to which he was entitled as an American and for which he had fought in front-line combat in World War II. One of his guiding principles was that public servants are just that — servants — and they had better do what he told them or he would make their lives miserable.

In the years that followed, an increasingly organized and politicized gay community gradually ate away at the hostility and anti-gay effectiveness of the MPD. Thirty years ago, three GAA members were arrested in Chief Wilson's office when he refused to meet with them.

A key event was the advent of DC Home Rule. As long as the District was directly governed by Congress, our ability to influence our own laws and policies was limited. In 1971, with Frank Kameny's impressive — albeit unsuccessful — run for Delegate to Congress, the gay community demonstrated its clout as a voting bloc. This proved useful in 1974, when, for the first time, DC voters elected a mayor and city council. At DC's first Home Rule budget hearing in 1975, GAA persuaded the DC Council to delete the line item that funded the Morals Division. As Frank says, "In one fell swoop, our enemy was defanged."

Frank continues: "In the ensuing years, society, culture, and the DC government all changed for the better — and GAA — later GLAA — worked unceasingly to effect needed change here in DC. The OPM, successor to the Civil Service Commission, ceased its gay-bashing. We got rid of the sodomy law, which defanged SLIP. And, finally, we got a really good Police Chief, Chief Charles Ramsey."

In late 1997, when Ramsey's predecessor resigned amid a scandal involving his own roommate, another officer, embezzling funds and blackmailing gay married men, I was invited by Mayor Marion Barry to represent GLAA on the citizen's advisory committee for the selection of a new police chief. The following spring, after announcing his appointment of Ramsey, Mayor Barry introduced me to the new chief. Ramsey immediately suggested that we hold regular meetings with him, which we then did. We made sure that a variety of GLBT community representatives were there, including members of our religious, business, African American and transgender communities. Chief Ramsey has also attended GLAA's annual reception, a far cry from the days of Morals Division entrapment.

For nearly seven years, Karen Pettapiece, a lesbian former law enforcement officer, has conducted the GLBT portion of the department's community diversity and sensitivity training for new recruits and lateral transfers at the DC Police Academy. We are still pushing for veteran officers to receive similar training.

In June 2000, Chief Ramsey authorized creation of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, or GLLU. Under the gregarious and indefatigable Sergeant Brett Parson, the GLLU has dramatically improved community-police relations. I should stress that, unlike similar units elsewhere, the GLLU is not just a public relations office. They have full enforcement powers. The GLLU has led the way in demonstrating that gay citizens and police officers can be cooperative partners rather than mistrustful adversaries.

Last April, GLAA gave its Distinguished Service Award to GLLU. Last Wednesday, November 12, the local group Transgender Health Empowerment, at its first annual awards banquet, gave its 2003 Community Service Award to GLLU. Brett Parson was joined by GLLU members Sterling Spangler and Tomi Finkle, a transgender retired police sergeant who is GLLU's Community Outreach Specialist for Training and Education. In accepting the award on behalf of GLLU, Brett stated:

"It's about time we got dressed up and gathered for a celebration. I'm tired of going to vigils, memorials and funerals for members of the transgender community. I'm tired of getting paged in the middle of the night, only to be notified of another violent attack against a member of this community." This testimonial by an openly gay police officer cannot, of course, bring anyone back to life; but it shows that someone within the force, with the backing of the management, is committed to obtaining justice for our murdered sisters.

Sergeant Parson pledged GLLU's continued efforts to educate fellow police officers about the transgender community. He announced that GLLU will soon begin an in-service training series to teach GLLU staff and other police officers about the diversity within the transgender community.

Of course there are still problems, and justice must be sought in a variety of ways including through the courts (as our friends in ACLU are doing) and legislature. Over the years, GLAA has led efforts to change the laws to rein in police overstepping: For example, we drafted DC Council legislation — which is now law — to stop police from being able to arrest people for drinking beer or wine on their own front porches. We led the effort to repeal the District's sodomy law. And we worked with the ACLU, NAACP, and others to craft legislation to re-establish and strengthen the Office of Citizen Complaint Review (CCRB), which investigates cases where police brutality is alleged. Just this morning, the CCRB issued a report and recommendations on disorderly conduct arrests made by MPD officers.

In summary, members of DC's gay community have worked for more than four decades to change our police department's approach to us from one of harassment and persecution to one of respect and service. With all the problems that remain — and it is not easy to eliminate the homophobia within the macho culture of a police force — it is important to recognize how far we have come. In this regard, I want to caution against making generalizations about police departments. MPD is a far cry from NYPD or LAPD. Painting all police forces with the same broad brush is false and counterproductive. DC is not New York or Los Angeles. The cause of justice is not well served by treating all police monolithically when that is precisely how we do not want police and others treating us. As Frank Kameny first demonstrated so long ago, there is no substitute for confronting and engaging these public servants directly and constructively, with clear goals in mind.

Our significant success over many decades may be instructive as an example of an approach to advocacy and activism that works. Now, here in DC, we have allies working from within the police force to hasten the day when not just the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit and the top officials of the department, but everyone on the force will say, in the words of Brett Parson, "We are in the community for you."


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