Police LGBT Liaison Units Cope With Training & A Suspicious Community

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 22, 2010

Part 1 of this two-part series examined the situations that gave rise to police LGBT liaison units in various parts of the country -†as well as criticisms of the units' effectiveness in giving LGBT residents a voice in policing activities.

In Ft. Worth, Texas, it was a much-criticized police raid on a bar last year. In nearby Dallas, there's a very active unit that has worked with local groups. In Washington, D.C., the city's diverse ethnicity contributed to the police maintaining an active liaison with the powerful local gay community. And Chicago is facing budgetary decisions that may impact on its very active unit.

With no national standards or networking organization, most cities which establish an LGBT liaison unit or officer are starting from scratch - frequently with little advance notice. That many newly minted liaisons are volunteers and work in an unofficial capacity provides additional challenges.

Fortunately, some cities have nearby colleagues to whom they can host for workshop and training sessions. Again, though, departmental policy is often nebulous or non-existent in terms of making LGBT diversity training mandatory. That's true whether it is just for cadets, for cadets and active officers, or part of the yearly updated training that virtually all departments require of their officers.

Less than a week after Ft. Worth, Texas, officer Sara Straten was named interim liaison, she was contacted by Sgt. Shelly Knight of the nearby Dallas County Sheriff's Office. Like police departments, sheriffs offices often have their own liaisons and/or diversity training.

"I call Laura fairly regularly when I need advice and she has been very supportive," Straten told EDGE in an interview. Last September the Ft. Worth Police Department even sent her to California for a seminar put on by the Gay Peace Officers Association.

"Yes, I too was shocked to find there was such a thing," she jokes. "There were literally hundreds of GLBTQ police officers there, training on everything from (train the trainer) classes on teaching recruit classes, to how to investigate hate crimes and domestic violence investigations involving GLBTQ families."

In nearby Dallas, Officer Laura Martin serves as LGBT Liaison for the Dallas Police Department. The LGBT diversity training all recruits receive amounts to four hours out of 32 weeks of training. This training, which has been occurring for the past 15 years, is handled by Martin as well as volunteers from the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance.

As for active duty officers, Martin says "There is no training required regarding the GLBT community, although they are required to put in 40 hours of updated training every two year cycle."

Martin has had members of the community ask her if the training can be updated. "There are people in the city considered leaders in the GLBT community that are trying to accomplish that," she noted. "I haven't been asked to do anything regarding that."

Rafael McDonnell, a spokesperson for the Resource Center of Dallas, which has participated in the Sherriff's Department diversity training. It occurs regularly every two years during each officer's recertification process.

The training, however, does not include LGBT materials, according to McDonnell, "so we came in to participate." McDonnell also notes that the state agency which sets standards for cadet training "does not include LGBT issues."

Individual departments have to choose whether to do that. In some of the major cities, they have chosen to discuss LGBT-specific training. The cities in Texas include Dallas, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio.

The Washington, D.C., LGBT diversity unit (GLUU) is undergoing changes involving more field work and getting closer to the community.

More officers now work as affiliates throughout the city versus out of a centralized office. Some member of the community are expressing disappointment. They believe that this step may have diluted the unit's effectiveness by taking it away from headquarters.

But it may in fact be a precursor to dissolving the centralized office. Local LGBT activists, it should be noted, have also been generous in their praise for the unit's overall impact upon the community.

During the summer, there will be special training of the 53 people picked for the liaisons, including LGNBT officers as well as liaisons to the African American, Latino and Asian communities. "Certain topics will also be highlighted for the general population," said Washington Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier in an interview with EDGE, "which would be part of the curriculum for the 40 hours of mandatory (annual) training."

And what about the instruction cadets receive? "They do get diversity training, with a major section on domestic violence, but it's not broken down into segments of the community; but often, our liaison officers will go talk to them."

Despite this patchwork model of training, Lanier says colleagues both nationally and internationally consider the District of Columbia's program "the model that everyone looks at." The District's force has advised police departments in suburban in Fairfax County, Vir., and Montgomery County, Md., as well as colleges and universities.

Representatives have come from as far afield as other countries and even Africa to see, in Lanier's words, "what these liaison units are all about."

Jamie Richardson, the LGBT liaison to Chicago's 20th district, says that every recruit who comes through that city's police academy receives some information on the GLBT community.

But what does she think about national standards or some sort of oversight of such liaison units? "If there was somebody to see that every police department was teaching a specific class, yeah, that would be a great thing," Richardson agrees.

That's unlikely, however, for now. Such requests for standards, training and accountability at the local level are often answered with claims of limited resources.

"That's their biggest defense," says Richardson, whose own department has been hard-pressed to continue its own liaison work in the face of the city's and state's budget woes. "What makes us special, unique?" she asked. "Why can't the department handle everybody with sensitivity? When do we have to have a special GLBT section to go to when our officers are trained to handle every situation equally?"

Andy Thayer, co-founder of Chicago's Gay Liberation Network, dismisses even what cursory training that already exists as "remarkably ineffectual." He cited an ongoing problem with an alleged rogue Chicago police officer who was accused of harassing the LGBT community.

Richard Fiorito, the accused cop, "operated out of the heart of the most gay friendly police district in the entire city for going on seven years," Thayer complained. "He was openly known to his fellow officers for being someone who victimized gay people. But none of his fellow officers, for all their sensitivity training, did anything about this issue."

For Thayer, the case shows how much work needs to be done even in the nation's most sophisticated urban centers 40 years after Stonewall.

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.