Can Police Culture Lose Its Transphobia?

Inside the Fight to End Gender Policing

Story by Natalie Hope McDonald

Photography by Paul Gargagliano

Published on

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Amira Gray, a 26-year-old transgender woman, was making a U-turn in suburban New Jersey when she noticed a police officer make the same turn and start following her. Within a block or two, he signaled her to pull over. She handed him her driver’s license. That’s when the problems began.

“After we exchanged a few words,” says Gray, “he told me my license was suspended. I knew it wasn’t.”

Gray was right; her license was in good standing, yet the North Bergen officer did not let her go. He began to address the young transgender woman as “mister” and “sir,” and before long, a second and third officer were called to the scene. The interrogation just kept going.

“The officer was very aggressive in how he spoke to me,” she recalls. As she waited on the side of the road to find out what she did wrong, she heard the officers talking about her in male terms. She heard them laugh and call her by her birth name, Mario Haywood, even though she had handed them a license that listed her name as Amira Gray and her gender as female. Gray, a fully transitioned woman, legally changed her name and license several years earlier.

Eventually, her car was towed and she was charged with driving with a suspended license, a safety glass violation and unclear plates. She took a train back to her home in Maryland, shaken and confused about why her car had been impounded. Months later, a North Bergen Municipal Court judge would dismiss the first two charges and fine her $54 for the unclear plates. On paper, the ordeal had ended, but Gray still had questions the judge hadn’t answered: Had she still identified as Mario Haywood, would she have been pulled over; would she have been tormented and taunted? And would her Honda Accord have ended up in an impound lot miles from her home even though her driver’s license was never even suspended?

Gray will never really know what was going through the officers’ minds when they impounded her car last September, but over the next year, her questions will have a chance to be aired publicly. In March, Gray sued the North Bergen Police Department, charging that she was discriminated against, targeted because of her gender identity.

If Gray prevails in court, not only will she be awarded damages, but both the city and police department will be required to amend their practices to ensure that what happened to her does not happen to another transgender person again.

“The correct thing,” Gray says, “is to address people as they are presenting themselves.”

Gray’s story is one of many that pit the police against transgender individuals, some just beginning their journey and others who have lived openly outside the gender assigned at birth for years. There are countless scenarios, stories about false arrests, harassment and even physical abuse at the hands of law enforcement. One-fifth of transgender Americans report being harassed by the police on a regular basis and 6 percent report that they have been victims of physical violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign. One-fifth report having spent time in jail. All things considered, the most remarkable thing about Gray’s story may be that we are talking about it all.

Last year, Police magazine published an article by a retired cop named James Parlow headlined, “Dealing With Transgender Subjects.” In it, Parlow describes the discomfort and even hostility many officers bring to interactions with transgender individuals.

“Normal reactions to meeting a transgender individual for the first time are usually, at first, curiosity, and then fear and disgust,” writes Parlow. “Oftentimes, it is the fear that encourages us to react with disbelief, skepticism or intolerance. Being transgender is not contagious or a mental illness, yet some officers still make jokes, mock and tease someone who is different from them. They bully, harass, disrespect, insult and hurt persons that don’t fit into their idea of what a person’s gender identity is.”

Parlow goes on to argue that police departments must get better at training officers to respect the rights of transgender people, not only because there is a moral imperative but because there is a legal one. Lawsuits alleging discrimination against transgender people have in the last decade taken police to court in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston and New York City, where a transgender woman filed charges in 2012 for being chained to a fence for 28 hours. Growing awareness of trans rights guarantees that these lawsuits will only multiply unless police change their behavior.

“This is a major issue for all police departments nationwide,” says Chris Bilal, a policy advocate for the New York City-based Streetwise and Safe. “It’s not a few bad apples; it’s a systemic problem and a cultural issue that must be addressed on a systemic level.”

Change From the Inside

Kevin Costello is the lawyer representing Amira Gray. She is one of many transgender clients he has represented over the years, many of them victims, like Gray alleges, of mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement.

“There’s no federal law protecting transgender people,” he says. “It’s really hard to get juries and judges to get to look at the issue without blinders on. They still may not get the fact that gender dysphoria is real.”

He admits cases like Gray’s are complex because of the cultural questions that underlie each experience, as well as the varied state laws, some of which are better (or worse) at protecting against transgender discrimination. New Jersey happens to be a good place to live if you’re transgender because there is legal protection; the state’s non-discrimination law covers gender identity. It should be noted that the North Bergen Police Department has launched its own internal investigation, and says it adheres to a strict non-discrimination policy. The department declined to comment on the case.

Costello began his practice in the early ’90s. At that time, just being gay or lesbian was challenging in the legal system, he says. Transgender rights today, Costello says, are about where gay and lesbian rights were at that time, even in major cities where there’s an expectation that things might be better, that people might be more aware.

“It was pretty standard for officers to ask transgender individuals to open their skirts and shirts so they could feel around.”

“[Gray] is filing her case for the right reasons,” he says. “The main reason she is doing this is because it was a special humiliation for her that if she was born a woman she would not have suffered. But she was born a man and is a woman.”

But individual lawsuits can take years to settle and don’t always result in the systemic change needed to truly change department culture. For that, there must be policy changes within departments and they must come from the inside.

In 2012, Streetwise and Safe won a major victory when the New York Police Department announced changes to the Patrol Guide handed out to each officer. The changes were aimed at providing more respectful treatment of transgender and other gender-nonconforming New Yorkers. To hear Bilal describe it, the status quo on trans rights in New York was pretty bleak before the change; trans New Yorkers were accustomed to crotch pat downs and other invasive touches to determine gender.

“It was pretty standard for officers to ask transgender individuals to open their skirts and shirts so they could feel around,” Bilal says. “They would say they needed to check identity or were searching for weapons but really, it often came down to the officer’s curiosity.”

It took a full decade for Streetwise and Safe and other advocates to successfully lobby the City Council for the changes to the Patrol Guide. Two years later, Bilal and others say the mistreatment hasn’t completely been eradicated.

“We are still having anecdotal evidence that people are being harassed, pronouns being misused, and strip searches on transgender and non-gender-conforming people are still happening with alarming impunity,” Bilal says.

Still, there is evidence that the approach is beginning to pay off. In the past several years, a number of big city police departments, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, have developed new policies that address how officers handle transgender victims, suspects and inmates. Last year, the Chicago Police Department initiated a general order that outlined facts about the transgender experience for its officers, including what it means to be transgender, how it presents during stages of transition and how people should be addressed. Several other cities have established liaison committees between the police and the community. Other educational and training efforts are even more to the point, like the LAPD’s recent ban of crotch pat downs, which had previously been used, like in New York, to determine the “real” gender of a person.

The LAPD stopped the crotch pat downs after years of persistent complaints from LGBT organizations and transgender individuals. Officers must now rely on a person’s clothing, language or demeanor to determine how to gender identify them. The new policy coincides with efforts to house transgender inmates in a separate area of the Metropolitan Detention Center because of a “history of violence,” according to LAPD jail division commander Capt. Dave Lindsey. He talked about the policy changes during a public meeting in West Hollywood, the city’s most notable gayborhood.

An Evolving Process

Deja Alvarez transitioned from male to female years ago. Now she works at Mazzoni Center, an LGBT health center in Philadelphia, helping others who are going through the process. The center’s Trans Wellness Project has become a kind of one-stop-shop for transgender needs, whether someone is seeking a surgeon or is having trouble finding housing. Alvarez has seen it all. And while she admits that things have been strained between many of the trans men and women she counsels and the police department, she and others in the community are working to mend fences. A member of an LGBT liaison commission established by the Philadelphia Police Department, she has an open line to local officers and actively works with them to improve community relations.

“Police harassment has been an issue,” said Alvarez during a recent meeting of the Philadelphia Police LGBT Liaison Committee, “but things are getting better.” The committee includes a handful of trans advocates as well as a representative from the District Attorney’s office. They meet each month with police in a small upstairs room at the William Way LGBT Community Center. They discuss everything from crime in Philly’s Gayborhood area to transgender rights, and find ways to deal with prostitution, drugs, robbery and homeless youth.

Deja Alverez in the Gayborhood.

Alvarez recently addressed the graduating Philadelphia Police Academy class, something that the committee has been doing for several years now. For the young cadets, she stood as a reminder of the different types of people they’ll encounter on the beat. She offers a positive image of what being a transgender woman can mean in 2014.

To do her job effectively, Alvarez must coordinate closely with Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who became the eyes and ears for the PPD on the committee in January 2013. The two come from different places, but part of what helps bridge the sometimes uncomfortable gap is his willingness to do something that almost seems too simple, too obvious: He listens.

“We have some significant historical issues between the LGBT community and police department,” Bethel says. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Philadelphia Police Department Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel at police headquarters.

He and his bosses have been looking to other cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, to see how their LGBT police policies are working. Heads of the police department even visited these cities to meet with chiefs about what works and what doesn’t. Considering that the PPD has been active for almost 220 years, and there have only been policies put in place to deal with sexual preference and gender identity in the past few years, it’s no surprise that there’s a bit of a learning curve.

But the biggest push from inside the department is in educating new officers on the appropriate verbiage used when interacting with transgender individuals, a protocol that can mean the difference between cooperation and backlash. The manuals that are distributed to cadets now have information about the LGBT experience. “If someone identifies as female,” says Bethel, “then we speak to them as such.” Having a policy that comes from the top is essential for changing standards across all patrols and encounters, he says. “That all stemmed with meetings that came out of the committee. It’s an evolving process.”

But distrust persists, especially as stories accumulate about police harassment.

For Bethel and the rest of the PPD, making amends for past unrest starts with solving crimes that had up until now been routinely ignored.

Unsolved Crimes

The vacant lot where the body parts were dumped is mostly empty now, save for overgrown grass and bits of trash that drift in from Sedgley Avenue and York Street. But earlier this year, it was the site of a gruesome discovery. This is where the dismembered body of Diamond Williams was found scattered in plastic bags.

Williams was allegedly murdered in the city’s Strawberry Mansion section after a 43-year-old man named Charles Sargent discovered she was a transgender woman. Sargent admitted to butchering Williams with a screwdriver and ax in his nearby home after the two reportedly had sexual relations.

With tensions high between law enforcement and the transgender community already, the Williams case has been put in the spotlight for one very important reason: what went right — the investigation, the arrest and ultimately the fact that Sargent was deemed competent and will stand trial for the brutal crime.

The intersection where the dismembered body of Diamond Williams was found.

But that doesn’t mean distrust still doesn’t run deep among much of the LGBT community, particularly among transgender men and women who have chronicled widespread discrimination at the hands of the very people who have taken an oath to serve and protect them.

Even after an arrest was made in the Williams case, Rose, 30, a close friend of the victim, addressed a crowd in Philadelphia’s Love Park during a vigil attended by other transgender victims of crime, as well as LGBT community leaders and allies from City Hall. She fought back tears as she struggled to make sense of the murder and the ongoing violence against her community.

“You know, every time a transgender or gay person is murdered, it’s overlooked, and no one cares,” she told the crowd. “And I promised I wouldn’t cry, but I feel like people think, oh, it’s another ‘tranny.’ Who cares? Oh, it’s another gay person. Who cares? But I pray for equality. I pray that we have the same rights and respect that everyone else has.”

As Sargent awaits trial, other unsolved murders only raise more questions, like what happened to Kyra Cordova, a 27-year-old transgender advocate who was discovered with a gunshot wound to her head in the city’s Frankford section. And then there’s Nizah Morris, a transgender woman whose mysterious death is no closer to being solved, even after 11 long years. She died, most likely from injuries sustained from blunt force trauma, after a ride in a police car. For many within the community, the Morris case embodies everything that’s wrong with the system.

The Trans Murder Monitoring project found that during the past five years there were a total of 1,123 reported killings of trans people in 57 countries worldwide — and 69 of those occurred in the United States. The estimated number of unreported crimes is actually predicted to be two, three, even four times higher than what’s ever reported.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently introduced a nationwide transgender education program designed specifically for law enforcement. It acts as an umbrella program for individual police departments nationwide; departments are provided training and a framework for how to deal with transgender suspects, victims and inmates in a non-discriminatory way.

A meeting of the Philadelphia Police LGBT Liaison Committee at the William Way Center.

“The department recognizes what is often lost in the debates about transgender individuals, and it’s that transgender lives are human lives,” said Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, during a press conference announcing the new program earlier this year. “We needed to establish a foundation of trust between those who serve and protect the public and those in the LGBT community, particularly the transgender community.”

The project is headed by the Community Relations Service, a DOJ unit created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which at the time, was designed to educate law enforcement about how to navigate a quickly desegregating country. The new training includes instructions about how to speak with transgender people, including the proper use of pronouns. For example, officers are trained to ask about someone’s preferred pronoun while avoiding any discussion about surgical status or the use of derogatory language. Special efforts are also made to understand a person’s gender identity despite what a driver’s license or other form of identification may say.

The program is an amazing first step, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, says Human Rights Commission’s senior legislative council Robin Maril. Nearly one in six transgender individuals have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, according to the HRC. In the black community, the proportion is even higher; 35 percent of black transgender people have been incarcerated compared to just 4 percent of whites, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (administered by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force). And once incarcerated, they face a disproportionate level of violence in prison. “At least 56 percent of transgender inmates have been raped or sexually assaulted compared to 4 percent of the general prison population,” says Maril. Of these inmates, 70 percent require medical attention, but only about 37 percent actually receive it.

Many also don’t receive the necessary medical treatment they had prior to being in prison, and most are denied hormone treatment, even if it was prescribed prior to incarceration. Maril says most U.S. prisons are not equipped to handle the needs of transgender inmates — period. “You still have people who have never even worked with a trans person,” says Maril. “And law enforcement often unnecessarily scrutinizes trans people.”


Patti Hammond Shaw has told her story many times since it happened seven years ago. It all started on the night of Dec. 10, 2009 when the 44-year-old was forced to ward off unwanted advances from a cousin’s friend in her Washington, D.C. home. By the time the police arrived, Shaw, a transgender woman, was bloody and missing a tooth after she alleges she was attacked by the male acquaintance.

After being treated for her injuries, she wasn’t taken home like most victims of a violent crime. Instead, she was transported to the local police station where she was placed in a holding cell. Officers placed her in a men’s cellblock despite the fact that she had gone through sex reassignment surgery and has female genitalia. The men surrounding Shaw demanded she show them her breasts as they exposed themselves. She was forced to watch men masturbate and throw questionable fluids at her. A male marshal strip searched her despite the fact that she legally changed her name from Melvin to Patti in 1989, and that her driver’s license reflected that change, she alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2012.

Like many other black transgender women, Shaw had already suffered a long history of violence and discrimination at the hands of the police even before the night in question.

The legal aches and pains for Shaw dragged on for several years, while the emotional scars took a lot longer to heal. Even though Shaw and her lawyers knew her lawsuit would be challenged in court and that her past would be used against her — she didn’t have a squeaky-clean record — she persevered. I wanted to ensure that “other transgender [people] won’t have to experience what I experienced,” she says.

During the past five years there were a total of 1,123 reported killings of trans people in 57 countries worldwide — and 69 of those occurred in the United States.

This past summer, Shaw finally got the answer she was looking for from both the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the U.S. Marshals in the form of an undisclosed monetary settlement. Perhaps even more significant is that the case also prompted the MPD to evaluate how it handles transgender suspects and victims in the future, in terms of where they are placed, how they are searched and how they are treated.

Shaw’s attorney, Jeffrey Light, who helped establish an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2005, hopes that the settlement will finally convince D.C. police to change their behavior.

“In D.C., you will find the widest gulf between what is supposed to happen and what has happened,” he says.

“The Biggest Challenge Is Building Trust”

It’s Saturday night and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier is running a patrol through one of Washington, D.C.’s most dangerous public housing projects. Since being appointed as the first female police chief in D.C. seven years ago, she’s made it her priority to be accessible in communities that may have a less than stellar opinion of law enforcement.

Wearing her summer uniform — black and white with short sleeves to beat a typically thick heat along the Potomac — Lanier intends to be a flesh-and-blood presence on the streets rather than exist behind the tinted SUV windows that shielded many of her predecessors. Perhaps she feels as if she has something to prove being the first woman in the chief’s role, but people who know her seem to say it’s just her way, that she’s always been about taking on challenges and winning. After all, Lanier was a high-school dropout who became a single mom when she was just 15. Relating to the disenfranchised and sometimes overlooked communities under her watch hardly seems off point for someone who, by all accounts, took the road less traveled herself.

Washington D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier

The nearly six-foot-tall blonde greets neighbors from a police cruiser that’s definitely not the norm for the highest-ranking officer in the department. But it’s all part of “All Hands on Deck,” an effort she’s created to deploy officers to high-crime areas through the summer. The goal isn’t to make arrests, says Lanier. It’s to make connections.

To date, Lanier’s taken a new approach to how officers communicate with civilians. She’s outfitted them with smartphone technology for starters, and the implicit goal is to get to know people in the neighborhoods they patrol. She’s also zeroing in on trust issues that have impeded progress. This means rather than arresting the transgender woman loitering on the corner, a patrolman might give her his phone number. It’s an entirely new approach to community relations within districts that have been butting heads with law enforcement for as long as anyone can remember. Lanier is turning heads nationally as she quickly reforms the way the troubled MPD does business. Next year, the department expects to launch a new training curriculum addressing transgender rights. “Other efforts to improve our relationship with the transgender community are ongoing,” she says.

Lanier’s tenacity for taking on unpopular issues isn’t surprising. Early on in her tenure, she took a hard look at hate crimes. In December 2011, she asked the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a national leader on the issue of hate crimes, to assist the department by conducting an impartial review of MPD’s hate crimes and community programs, comparing them with programs in other departments in the nation, and identifying any areas that might be strengthened. To do this, the ADL assembled a small group of national civil rights organizations, advocacy groups, and recognized academic authorities with involvement and experience on the issues of community engagement and hate crimes to donate their time. The task force launched its effort by focusing on outreach and response to the LGBT community. The result was a 41-page report that dissected every angle of police involvement in the LGBT community, including persistent problems between the transgender community and the MPD.

The report hit the department hard, but the response from Lanier and other high-ranking officers has been receptive. LGBT groups are optimistic that with Lanier as a partner, they could make change happen. “Right now, the biggest challenge is building trust between the community and police,” said Lanier in a statement. “The trust is essential because we need individuals to come forward when they are victims of or witnesses to crime, and to report any officer that isn’t meeting our standards for treating individuals of any community here in the district.”

Some of the issues encountered by police officers, as outlined in the report, include difficulties in determining gender for identification purposes, transportation, processing, housing and medical treatment.

“We were among the first to issue a groundbreaking policy handling interactions with transgender individuals,” says Lanier. “We are actively working with the community on implementing various recommendations of the report.” Some steps are single concrete actions — such as holding public meetings — while others take more time, like revising training for all officers.

Lanier has asked the Office of Police Complaints (OPC), an independent civilian oversight board, to partner with advocates in the transgender community to create a channel through which complaints can be made without fear of retribution. This is notable as the OPC carries a lot of weight in the District. In the past seven years, the department has disciplined officers in 97 percent of the cases for which the board sustained misconduct.

“We’ve come a long way,” Lanier told the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper, just after the first town hall. “Are there individuals in the department — we have almost 5,000 employees — that may harbor a bias? Of course there are. But we can’t let that define our organization. We have to let the mass of the police define our organization and keep looking to get rid of people who don’t belong here.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Natalie Hope McDonald is a freelance writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She’s the former editor of G Philly, an LGBT lifestyle magazine, and has contributed to publications around the country, including Newsweek and The Advocate. You can find her at

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Paul Gargagliano is a Philadelphia-based freelance photographer. Brooklyn born and bred, he studied photography at Oberlin College. His work ranges from photojournalism with an urban bent, to wedding and event photography with

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