Op-Ed: Culturally Inept Policing Schools Criminals

Photo by Adam Fagen Flickr/creative commons

Photo by Adam Fagen
Flickr/creative commons

In our grassroots work in Washington, DC, 3 years ago, we discovered a sad reality that persists. Police training and code, cultural competency training, with additional Special Orders pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) people, and the country’s most long-standing and extensive human rights protections for the LGBT community were not enough to rid the police force of homophobes and transphobes. While there are many good policemen, this substantial group cannot not be persuaded to put their personal feelings second to enforcing the law, actually doing their jobs. In fact, some are perpetrators of crimes against the communities they were assigned to protect. Only in the most egregious criminal cases is it possible to overcome police unions to get certain police officers permanently removed from the force.

The worst part of these bad practices is that they allow bigotry to cast a pall across an entire community, creating an atmosphere at odds with serving and protecting the community, the whole community. And, it is in this atmosphere, where LGBT people are not valued, that all the rest of the criminals model their behavior.

In 2011, after a rash of anti-trans violence and murders in just as many months, VenusPlusX helped organize a coalition of a dozen mostly local LGBT organizations under the banner of the DC TLGB Police Watch (T being our priority). We went to work listening to victims of police bias and anti-LGBT violence, especially anti-trans violence, as well as other concerns of the TLGB community and the community-at-large. We turned those concerns into goals and objectives and developed the city’s first-ever Transgender Day of Action with targets, written demands, and built-in accountability.

We were, at least temporarily successful, not only because the murders stopped for a almost 2 years, but because new channels of communication were opened in a way they had not been before among and between the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, and, especially the US Attorney for Washington, DC. Within 48 hours, our phones were ringing, cold cases were being re-opened, and the US Attorney championed our position that the city’s feckless Prostitution Free Zones (enacted temporarily wherever there was a pocket of citizen complaints, supposedly) were unconstitutional in that they unfairly targeted people of color, the poor, and sex workers, especially trans sex workers forced to the streets when they had no other choice.

This coalition seeded the trans community with a new activists and allies and went on to bring about positive change such as a birth certificate bill, and better access to health care, employment, and housing. Police anti-trans bias was somewhat quelled a few years ago, but has gradually emerged again putting this latest spate of senseless anti-trans violence and murders in sharp relief.

Walking while trans is a real thing. It can often be a matter of life and death.

A young trans woman of color leaves here downtown office after sunset, heading for her bus stop. She spent years trying to get employment, and she was feeling good about her new job.

Her route takes her near, but not in, a city park. She sees two patrolman heading towards her and she holds steady on her path.

One of these patrolman grew up hating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and, especially, trans people. He still hates them, despite his training, the special orders re LGBT people, and the human rights laws in the city. He suspects the woman walking towards him is trans, believing she is probably a prostitute. The hairs on the back of his head stand up, his sternum stiffens. Why do these freaks think they can just walk around, these dudes in a dress, he asks his partner. By the time they are face to face with the innocent woman, they are primed to give her a hard time. They want to arrest her. They ask for ID, and then permission to dig deep through her belongings. They find 3 packaged condoms and arrest her for prostitution based on no other evidence. She will go to jail and probably stay there, losing her really nice job.

More has to be done to weed out the underlying problem of police bias and misconduct, setting the poorest examples for would-be criminals. Activists and advocates must redouble their efforts to put pressure on public officials, demanding leadership to forge better police recruitment and training standards, and helping good police officers transform their unions to have zero-tolerance for bad actors.

The Department of Justice has at last launched a program “to train local police departments to better respond to transgender individuals.” This is not a reason to go lightly. It’s all hands on deck, including yours, the more local the better.


Jamelle Bouie Gives the Larger Picture

Photo by Steve Rhodes Flickr/creative commons

Photo by Steve Rhodes
Flickr/creative commons

Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

But while calm is hard to predict, one thing is clear: The events in Ferguson—from the shooting to the police response and everything since—are a product of familiar forces and stem from a familiar history. Put another way, the area’s long-bottled racial tension has burst, and it’s difficult to know if it can be resolved, much less contained. — Slate’s Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) 

In a mere 3000 words, Jamelle Bouie schools us in reality versus perception. The article is well worth a full read and understanding because it applies to every other American city. Here are some highlights . . .

Mr. Bouie aptly blends history with current events to put the Michael Brown shooting into a larger context. He forces us to recognize that modern events cannot be considered apart from St. Louis area’s dark history of segregation and police brutality.

An overbearing police presence is a defining feature of life in Ferguson and the rest of North County. Last year in Ferguson, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests involved blacks, despite the fact that police found more “contraband” stopping white residents than black ones. I spoke to several young men in Ferguson—all teenagers or in their early 20s—who said they were stopped on a weekly basis. At a makeshift Michael Brown memorial, I asked one 20-year-old how many times he’s stopped by police, “About 10 times a month,” he said.

Mr. Bouie takes us back to 100 years when St. Louis became one the first places to create African-American ghettos with boundaries illegal to cross, and sequestered areas where brown and black people were allowed to own homes.

He goes on to offer the best analysis of the facts I’ve seen anywhere, including a documented history of police brutality that breeds fear and disables any notion of serve and protect. He points us to The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (also a must read).

“Blacks were the easiest targets of the police; their rights were the least respected, and they had only a modicum of political influence to hold officers accountable.

Criminality was well-distributed among the ethnic and racial groups of the North, but blacks were disproportionate targets for police. The result was a perception of black criminality despite the lack of clear evidence it actually existed.”

This deep distrust of law enforcement stems from decades of unfair treatment, says Bouie, who suggest this is perhaps what motivates desperate looters. Unless we can turn this tide with new laws, policies, and human rights protections the current state of affairs will continue and there will continue to be police shootings of brown and black men in this country.


I submit that tonight in American there are hundreds of African-American parents forced to sit their young children down to explain how they should watch out for and behave in any encounter with the police. These hard truths rob these children of part of their childhood, making them feel there is something wrong with them in spite of their parents’ attempts to dispel that false and crippling notion.

Congressional panels and other inquiries are being launched to answer the epic questions raised by Michael Brown’s murder: the war on brown and black men in this country, police bias and brutality, systems of mass incarceration in for-profit prisons. It is our job to make sure we find the answers and create new, human, and voluntary associations to replace the coercive systems built on the pain of many for the advantages of the few.

We need to coproduce a world in which no mother ever has to have that conversation with her children.


Also see:

Old Ferguson Makes New Commitments

Flickr/creative commons

Flickr/creative commons

VenusPlusX’s unique mix, what we mean by The New Age of Sexual Freedom, is aimed at solutions to change the state of our country, our world, through the removal of all obstacles such as racism, sexism, the worst of nationalism, and all the other “isms,” that stand in the way of Peace, universal pluralism based on love. (Our Mission, our Manifesto.)

In this context, we have written all week about the shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, his legacy and his family’s continuing legacy, a lightening strike heard around the world that has forever changed how many people look at the self-destructive systems, laws, and policies that led to this senseless death. These obstacles to Peace include the war against young black men, the militarization of local police, mass incarceration, for-profit prisons and probation systems, and more that we have long focused on, and will continue to.

So, what’s the good news?

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder is visiting Ferguson as part of the Justice Department’s federal civil rights investigation.

“I realize there is tremendous interest in the facts of the incident that led to Michael Brown’s death, but I ask for the public’s patience as we conduct this investigation. The selective release of sensitive information that we have seen in this case so far is troubling to me. No matter how others pursue their own separate inquiries, the Justice Department is resolved to preserve the integrity of its investigation. This is a critical step in restoring trust between law enforcement and the community, not just in Ferguson, but beyond.”

Holder’s full statement is available here. He has ordered a third and last autopsy on Michael Brown to establish evidence, and finally freeing the family to bring him to rest. All this is happening as the county grand jury for Ferguson is convening to consider criminal charges, a result we might not know until mid-October, a result entrusted to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch with a questionable track record who has refused calls for his recusal. 

In the meantime, Holder has fielded 40 new FBI investigators to canvas the area, interview witnesses, and collect evidence as part of the federal investigation. Justice awaits us.

Also, today, the Ferguson Police Department issued a list of new commitments. Again, we have to try not to be immediately skeptical, but again, we will have to wait and see. Here is the full announcement.





The other day, we noted how effective body cams can be.

Make every policeman wear a body camera, a simple fix that has shown a dramatic 88% decline in the number of complaints about police, and a similar drastic reduction in the use of force and police brutality.

We asked that you sign the White House petition demanding these body cams for all police officers, and it has just reached over 100,000 signatures, a threshold that requires a direct response from the President.

Stay tuned.



Solutions Are Available But Will We Pay Attention?

“Every once in a while, a dramatic news story can actually produce real reform. More often the momentum peters out once the story disappears from the news (remember how Sandy Hook meant we were going to get real gun control?), but it can happen. And now, after the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missiouri, turned to a chaotic nightmare of police oppression, we may have an opportunity to examine, and hopefully reverse, a troubling policy trend of recent years.” — Paul Waldman, The American Prospect

Photo by Chase Carter Flicker/creative commons

Photo by Chase Carter
Flicker/creative commons

We’ve written our initial response to the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting over a week ago of Michael Brown by a white police force.

The escalation of protests and more violence at the hands of police continues as justice is delayed or denied for the Brown family, such as:

  • The Browns had to watch their son languish in the middle of the street, unattended for more than 4 hours.
  • The local police and the county prosecutor have completely failed in their duties, not releasing the name of the police officer for 6 days, and still giving no information from law enforcement’s reports on the shooting.
  • The pre-emptive release of a tape alleging Michael Brown was a shoplifter, although the policeman who shot Brown was unaware of this (not that it should have made any difference).
  • The overreaction of a militarized police force, a big nationwide problem that must be reversed, a key issue we will continue to cover.
  • The bull-headed insistence by Governor Jay Nixon and the rest of the white establishment that the community must first demonstrate peace before they will deal out justice when it is obvious that the reverse must take place in order for the unrest end.

It’s time to start looking for real and sustainable solutions, and we will dive deeper into these in the coming days:

  1. Mobilize people of color to vote, making sure they are represented proportionally at all levels of local, county, and state administration. The most recent elections in Ferguson brought out only 12% turnout by minorities, less than a third of white turnout.
  2. Support national legislation to reverse the decades long, constitution-bashing systems that turn local police forces into armed militias who must overreact to justify their existence. (Sign the Care2 petition.)
  3. Make every policeman wear a body camera, a simple fix that has shown a dramatic 88% decline in the number of complaints about police, and a similar drastic reduction in the use of force and police brutality. (Sign the White House petition.)
  4. More to come . . .

Michael Brown and his family have finally put a face on police brutality, sparking a robust national conversation that must take place. Freedom and human rights are just words, words this country peddles abroad but does little for at home. We can honor this family’s awful sacrifice by doing more each day to end this scourge in our nation. Will you?




Casa Ruby Awards First Dan Massey Trans Ally Award

Last week, we had another wonderful night out in New York City with our friend and current candidate for the Maryland Senate, Dr. Dana Beyer. The Maryland primary election is today and, win or lose, it’s not an exaggeration to say the force is with her. As a trans woman running against an entrenched old boy who happens to be a gay man, she has been heroic in this campaign (and in her previous campaigns for Maryland Delegate) in presenting voters with a true progressive vision that enfranchises all people, not just special interests, not the status quo.

(l. to r.) Dana Beyer, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, and Casa Ruby Distinguished Service Award recipient, Consuella Lopez Photo by Ted Eytan Flickr/creative commons

(l. to r.) Dana Beyer, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, and Casa Ruby Distinguished Service Award recipient, Consuella Lopez
Photo by Ted Eytan
Flickr/creative commons

Dana related to us what transpired a couple of weeks ago at Casa Ruby, a Latino LGBT services and resource center in Washington, DC, a place that has long been a focus of VenusPlusX’s support. We weren’t able to be in DC to attend Casa Ruby’s second anniversary celebration and be present to witness the award of the first Dan Massey Ally Award, but it’s made me and our family very happy. From Dana’s Huffington Post weekly column . . .

Alison, together with her husband Dan Massey, is responsible for making the D.C. trans community the presence in the city that it is today. Through their support of the DC Trans Coalition, and particularly Casa Ruby, the city’s leading nonprofit supporting the daily needs of its trans citizens, they made their indelible mark on us all.

Two weeks ago I had the honor of awarding the inaugural Dan Massey Ally Award to Dr. Ted Eytan, who is working assiduously to make the Kaiser health system completely trans-inclusive, trans-supportive and culturally competent.

Those words, and this wonderful new award in Dan’s name, are heartening to hear, but I’d like to give a little context.

Before moving last year from DC to Brooklyn, New York, a few months after Dan suddenly left for higher shores, Casa Ruby became sort of second home to the both of us.

Following our close involvement with the 2011 Equality March Host Committee, Dan and I joined with Casa Ruby founder Ruby Corado, the DC Trans Coalition, and many other local lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) activists and organizations to bring about better public safety, healthcare access, and employment, especially for transfolk, work that had been ongoing for more than a decade. The high incidence of local attacks and murders of trans women in and around DC drives these activists who give all of their free time (and money) to make things better in a selfless wayk

In 2011, VenusPlusX helped establish a pop-up coalition of more than a dozen local organizations, at the time called the TLGB Police Watch. (Putting the T ahead of LGB was my brainstorm, to put the emphasis on the most-discriminated-against group in the fold). This group worked together, first listening to some very scary stories from trans victims and eventually translating these sacrifices into community-wide concerns, goals, strategies, and non-violent actions.

The TLGB Police Watch coalition brought solid demands directly to DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, elected city officials, and to the US Attorney for Washington, DC, giving trans activists’ public engagement a much-needed reboot. And, sure enough, the next day, our phones started ringing with positive results. The following spring, Ruby, Dan, and I took our experience to a national audience with a panel at the Philly Trans Health conference (the largest LGBT conference in the country) to reach out to activists from other cities who were seeking help figure out what more they can do. Click here more info. (If you live in a city that needs help to advance trans rights, please let us hear from you via columbia@venusplusx.org.)

This group of activists has stuck together and grown in size, and continues to make strides to protect and advance trans rights in DC. At each turn, they manage to feast of adversity, and time after time rescue success from the jaws of defeat. The largest trans rally the city had ever seen took place in the summer of 2012, attracting hundreds, and more than 100 new volunteer allies committed that day to work with us. (The press under-reported the number in attendance; I hand counted 235 people). I remember sitting at the sidelines with tears swelling to see how far we had come in making ourselves heard. 

Thank you Ruby and Casa Ruby, and thank you Dana, for all that you do. You never seek attention or reward, you just go about doing good to others, the greatest legacy of all.



Sign Our Petition to Stop Harmful Prostitution-Free Zones

Tomorrow in DC we will be delivering testimony, reprinted below, in opposition to  Bill 19-567, a proposed new law that would allow police to designate permanent Prostitution-Free Zones (PFZs), which have been dubbed by local activists as Trans Profiling Zones.

If you cannot attend tomorrow, you can watch online.

In any case, in the coming two weeks, please join us by signing the change.org petition. Each time someone signs, the DC Council gets email notice. We want to deluge these officials’ in boxes and make sure that this legislation is never passed, and that even our current temporary PFZs disappear in the waste bin of stupid ideas.

Prostitution is illegal, but PFZs, temporary as they are now or permanent, constitute legalized sex discrimination and a direct challenge to civil rights. Any discussion of PFZs is, therefore, part of a larger discourse on human rights.

As others will attest tomorrow, the establishment or continuation of PFZs is clearly unconstitutional, ignoring due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution, so any law making them permanent will be subject to unending legal challenges costing our city hundreds of thousands of tax dollars defending a foolish law.

Putting the question of constitutionality aside for the moment, however, these PFZs are a menace to public safety by creating “papers please” profiling zones threatening people in the neighborhoods where they wish to live and work in peace. Police haven’t curbed prostitution or decreased crime that is imagined to be associated with prostitution, just relocated most of these activities to outlying neighborhoods away from downtown.

All residents and visitors to our nation’s capital have the right to be free from unwelcomed, coerced encounters with police, and the harassment that ensues during such forced encounters. Because most if not all of these coercive encounters have been shown to be biased, based entirely on the personal judgments and viewpoints of the police officer/s, rather than extant police procedures and special orders and human rights laws in the District of Columbia. Many of these unsolicited encounters with cross-purposes result in unwarranted arrests, further harassment, mistreatment by the police while incarcerated, and sometimes injury or even death.

DC government has the opportunity to step back and consider that the path of the PFZs is not only a losing proposition, it goes against the very principles of existing local laws and the very integrity of those who serve the Council. Rather then roiling ‘red meat’ for a small group of noisy busybodies in select neighborhoods, so as not to ‘appear’ as favoring prostitution, lawmakers should instead focus their attention on finding systemic and sustainable solutions that offer better employment options to this most vulnerable class of people, often forced through economic necessity to seek sex work for their very survival.

VenusPlusX’s testimony, prepared by Dan Massey, points to a future where sex workers are not victims of police overreach such as these PFZs. Here it is:

A Statement Opposing Establishment of Permanent Prostitution-Free Zones in the District of Columbia

You are today considering legislation that would create permanent “prostitution- free zones” (PPFZs) in certain areas of the city. I strongly urge that the Council table this matter for the time being and instead initiate a combined government and community-based effort, emphasizing transparency and harmony, to effectively address the real underlying problem which the PPFZ proposal fails to address.

There is little to gain in enacting laws that sound responsible to a vocal minority in the community, but which depend solely on the government to deploy violence against fellow citizens. Such laws deserve only ridicule when examined in the light of reason.

Sex workers provide an important function in society by filling a market need that cannot be eliminated, since it comes about through the choices and desires of the individual members of the population as a whole.

Criminalization of sex work simply forces sex workers to practice their profession at times and places where they can be free from police observation, while remaining accessible to their clientele.

Unfortunately, this means the solicitation and delivery of services will most often occur at times and in areas of the city where the participants will necessarily be more vulnerable to crimes of violence because of reduced police oversight.

At this time, I am not suggesting that the Council immediately de-criminalize and regulate sex work. Rather, I want each of you to honestly examine how much better it would be for the city to establish “Prostitution Zones” (PZs), under police protection. in which sex work is legal, licensed, and medically supervised.

Such zones would become havens for legal, socially beneficial sexual healing, and create opportunities for sex worker cooperatives to emerge, owning real estate and paying license fees and property taxes.

At the same time, with the establishment of such centers of expertise, open sex trade would be drawn away from unaccepting areas of the community, to everyone’s satisfaction.

At the moment, such a change in the underlying approach to prostitution in the city would be misunderstood and misinterpreted by many who hold strong opinions, simply because they have not yet actually been engaged in a rational discussion of alternatives and choices.

The Council can show it supports a rational approach by providing a public forum charged to find systemic and sustainable solutions for the District’s challenges in this area. Its current course in considering establishment of PPFZs will only complicate matters further, since court challenges based on considerable precedents in other locales are inevitable.

This forum should be established with a view towards providing the same respect, rights, and safety that all District residents desire from our society and our government, and should draw on community resources advocating every possible viewpoint and attitude, while providing full transparency in the decision-making process.

The outcome of such a discussion would be broad public education on the challenges of governing a modern city, the emergence of agreement on common goals and purposes, and anticipation of the benefits of agreed changes.

Such results would be visible through the reduction in crimes of violence, especially those motivated by racial and sexual hatred, as well as improvements in the health of all District residents.

At present, many people find themselves trapped into sex work by economic situations, many of which arise directly from social prejudice, hiring biases, and unfounded presumptions.

In this respect, I applaud the work of Project Empowement, which is demonstrating the fallacy of social prejudice. The ongoing effort to help our local LGBT youth gang find a constructive outlet for their commitment and energy also deserves recognition.

To summarize, I am advocating that the Council, working with MPD and the Mayor’s Office, begin to support and listen to an emerging discussion that would educate the entire DC community in wholesome ways to address the serious social problem created by public misunderstanding of legitimate, morally responsible services.

On a closely related subject:

Law enforcement management is maturing technically in many US cities. In 2009, the National Institute of Justice funded a Phase 1 trial of Predictive Policing in seven cities, including Washington, DC. I have seen no published report from this work; however, Shreveport and Chicago have received grants of $0.5M and $1.5M, respectively, to implement Phase 2 of their plans.

Building on earlier successes in Los Angeles, Memphis, and Richmond, Predictive Policing involves the collection and analysis of large bodies of data about crime times, locations, conditions, victims, methods, etc., as well as detailed environmental data about the organization of the city and its infrastructure.

Results help identify and pinpoint places, times, and conditions conducive to crime. Often, they identify environment, infrastructure, and organization that leads to the emergence of these “hot spots.” In Memphis, for example, the incidence of public rape, assault, and theft was significantly reduced simply by shifting the locations of public pay phones that were shown to be “hot spots” from street locations to the interiors of businesses open 24×7.

It is clear that legislation that criminalizes prostitution and then, having given up on fair enforcement of the original law, seeks to occasionally apply it more forcefully and arbitrarily in specific areas, is itself responsible for the formation of “hot spots” for serious criminal activity.

Making these zones permanent is merely another step backwards into a system of regulation that, like the proverbial ostrich, hides its head in the sand.

I urge Council members concerned about crime prevention in DC to examine some of the reference material on Preventive Policing cited in the attached References.

I firmly believe that, if the city will openly and honestly examine these issues, free from unreasoned prejudice, it will be possible to reform our practices in a way that can be a light to the entire nation.

The time has come for our city to take steps that will surely lead to the achievement of full civil liberty and freedom under a system of laws that fully represents to the nation and the world our highest ideals of excellence in law and government.

Let us again proclaim to the world that the District of Columbia aspires to be a shining example of full liberty and freedom for all, as was demonstrated in the establishment of Civil Marriage Equality in 2010 and many prior victories for human rights.


The Deparment of Pre-Crime. James Vlahos in Scientific American, Vol. 306, No. 1, pages 62-67, January 2012.

Self-Exciting Point Processes Modeling of Crime. G. O. Mohler, M. B. Short. P. J. Brantingham, F. P. Schoenberg, and G. E. Tita in Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 106, No. 473, pages 100-108, 2011.

How New York Beat Crime. Franklin E. Zimring in Scientific American, Vol. 305, No. 2, pages 74-79, August 2011.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports:     www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr.

Scientific American Online:     www.ScientificAmrican.com/jan2012/precrime