Get up-to-date news about our campaign to hold police accountable and end State-sanctioned violence against trans people by reading our blog with the tag “police”!

Background & Context

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey noted that one fifth of all trans respondents had been harassed or assaulted by police officers. The rates of abuse was much higher for people of color — 60%  for Black trans people. Additionally, 46% of all respondents were uncomfortable reporting crimes to police.  A lack of consistent identity documents, fear of prejudiced and hateful officers and other factors can create complicated problems when interacting with police. Lessening the impact of this policing is an important part of our vision of a world where no one has to worry about violence or criminalization, and everyone can safely express their gender identity.

There is a documented history proving that many police officers assume trans women, especially low-income trans women and trans women of color, are sex workers. This means sometimes trans women – whether they are sex workers or not – may be stopped and harassed simply for being outside at night, a phenomenon some people refer to as being arrested for “walking while trans.”

However, individual “bad apple” prejudiced officers are only part of the problem. In other words, when police officers harass, detain or assault trans women on the street, it usually does not begin simply because the police officers are transphobic individuals out looking to arrest trans people. Sometimes, such interactions begin because the trans individuals involved may be (or the police may assume that they are) homeless, doing sex work, using illegal drugs, shoplifting, etc.

Certainly, transphobic stereotypes play a part in determining who is most likely to be profiled and stopped by the police. However, such stereotypes and prejudices are only one small part of a broader set of problems. Trans people are more likely to experience poverty, housing instability and unemployment. Many trans people have no choice except to engage in criminalized activities in order to survive. So long as those people are not able to access the resources they need to survive (like food and housing) and their means of survival are punished by law, many trans people will continue to suffer from unfair policing.

While it is absolutely vital to confront the individual ignorance and dispel transphobic attitudes found throughout the policing system, we must also not forget to look at the many other complicated reasons that trans people routinely have negative experiences with the police.

History of Our Campaign

Thankfully, in DC we have fought for policies to reduce these problems. In 2007, DCTC successfully pressured DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier to sign the General Order on Handling Interactions with Transgender Individuals. (Click here for an easy-to-understand summary of the policy.) This document lays out some important guidelines on how MPD officers are supposed to treat trans folks, such as how they can search us and how they book our names if our ID cards don’t match up to their records. It also specifies that police cannot use our gender expression or perceived trans status as an excuse to harass or arrest us. We strongly encourage anyone who lives in, works in or visits DC to become familiar with these rights and what to do if they are violated.

But even with these strong protections on paper, police harassment on the street and the threat of being arrested and sent to jail remains a constant problem for many. We continue to work to enforce these existing procedures and to make sure our communities know their rights so that they can defend them when the police fail to respect them. We are also continuing to work to change some of the other policies that fuel the power that police have over trans and gender nonconforming people. In 2013, we worked to have MPD clarify that carrying condoms is not evidence of engaging in sex work. Later in 2014, we successfully achieved a repeal of so-called “Prostitution-Free Zones” that were a legalized police tactic that led to increased violence, harassment, and short-term expulsion of trans people, especially trans women of color, from certain areas of the city.

Our response must provide practical strategies that lead to immediate results. As part of our on-going effort to monitor and enforce the police’s own policies, we have shifted our focus to demanding adequate training for police officers so that they are informed about the basic realities of trans people’s lives.  The first “comprehensive” LGBT training was provided by community members over three days in June 2010, including two days in the classroom and a day of field visits to community organizations.  As part of that program, DCTC designed and presented a 3-hour training session for officers of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) and others between June 2010 and August 2013.

We hope to make sure police are aware of the rights outlined to trans people in the DC Human Rights Act and other city policies. For example, we are aware of cases in which police officers have harassed and threatened trans women for using public rest rooms consistent with their gender identity – despite the fact that this right is guaranteed under DC law.

While we are not convinced that such training will ever solve the larger problems outlined above, we support efforts to make sure meaningful, community-informed, comprehensive training is regularly provided to police in hopes we can reduce the amount of violence that our communities daily face.

We also work to hold police officers accountable whenever they violate our rights or inflict violence on trans people. Click here and here to learn about specific instances of police brutality that DCTC has responded to.

Future Directions

After a significant eruption of violence in 2011 coupled with poor police response, MPD commissioned a Hate Crimes Assessment Task Force to review how the department interacts with trans people and responds to anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ violence. Though the task force’s process was problematic, the resulting report found MPD’s terrible relationship with DC trans communities as the core problem with both responding to violence and interacting with LGBTQ communities more broadly. The February 2014 task force report, along with a community response authored by seven local LGBTQ organizations, including DCTC, articulated fifty-seven recommendations for reformed training, policy, procedure, and outreach mechanisms. On the first anniversary of the task force report and community response, those same organizations issued a report card on implementation progress. There is still much more work to be done, but we are committed to long-term transformation of police-trans relations in DC.

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