Ask Lambda Legal – The Transgender Community and Police

Q: I’m a transgender woman, and sometimes when I’m out with friends, a police officer stops to harass me on the sidewalk, assuming I’m a prostitute. What should I do?
A: Your first step should be to get as much information as possible about the officer involved: badge number, precinct number, name, description, time of day and location. Police are required to provide their badge number and names — although you should make sure that you are not putting yourself in danger by collecting the information. If you are questioned by the police, ask whether you are free to go. If they say you are, calmly walk away.

If you are harassed by police, it’s a good idea to contact a community-based organization that works on issues of police and institutional violence, such as the New York City-based Anti-Violence Project (avp.org; 212-714-1141) or another group under the umbrella of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (ncavp.org). The Kansas City Anti-Violence Project (www.kcavp.org; 816-561-0550) provides domestic violence, sexual assault and hate crimes advocacy and education to the LGBT community. These groups can advise you on where to turn, not just for legal advice but also for support of other kinds.

Also contact your local police department’s Civilian Complaint Review Board or Internal Affairs Bureau. Reporting the incident is very important for building an accurate measure of the problem overall.

Police harassment and outright brutality against transgender people are very common: Twenty-two percent of 6,450 transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents in the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey who had interacted with police reported being harassed by them (the rate was much higher for transgender people of color). And almost one out of two respondents said they were uncomfortable about seeking help from police.

There is litigation pending in response to incidents in several cities of police strip-searching, groping, conducting false arrests and chaining transgender people on handrails in “fish tank” fashion rather than placing them in cells. Meanwhile, advocates have been working with police to implement guidelines requiring respectful treatment of transgender people on patrol and in custody. The results have been significant policy improvements in San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C.

In April 2012, the Los Angeles Police Department issued a new policy on treatment of transgender prisoners intended to “prevent discrimination and conflict.” Among the guidelines is this instruction: “Treat transgender persons in a manner that reveals respect for the individual’s gender identity and gender expression, which includes addressing them by their preferred name and using gender pronouns appropriate to the individual’s gender self-identity and expression.”

For more information, download our tool kit, “Fighting Anti-trans Violence” at www.lambdalegal.org/publications/trt_transgender_violence

For information on Lambda Legal’s work with transgender rights, see lambdalegal.org/issues/transgender-rights.

If you feel you have been discriminated against based on your sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status please contact our Legal Help Desk at 800-542-8336 or go to www.lambdalegal.org/help.

Dru Levasseur is a transgender rights attorney for Lambda Legal, the national organization that works to secure full civil rights for LGBT people.

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