Amnesty Looks at U.S.A.

International advocacy group highlights police misconduct toward gaysAmnesty Focuses on LGBT Abuse in U.S.A.

Amnesty International last week issued a first-of-its-kind report on police abuse of sexual minorities in the United States—and the stunning findings document widespread “serious patterns of police misconduct and brutality aimed at LGBT people, including abuses that amount to torture and ill treatment.”

The most abused, Amnesty found, are transgendered Americans and young people under 21.The report also found “a pattern of police failing to respond or responding inappropriately to ‘hate crimes’” and other crimes against gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.

“‘Masculine’ appearing women and gay men may be perceived by some law enforcement officers to not require or deserve protection from violence,” the report stated. “U.S. authorities are failing to act with due diligence to prevent and investigate crimes against LGBT people.”

The report includes plenty of New York-specific material in this report. Whether it will receive the attention it deserves in the current mayoral campaign remains to be seen.

The dense, 132-page report—“Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in the U.S.,” available online at amnesty.org—was based on a survey of the largest police departments in 50 states and on hundreds of interviews, and focused specifically on a half-dozen of the biggest cities, New York City among them. Even though the NYPD refused to respond to the Amnesty International survey, the group was able to interview a number of New York City police officers individually.

The report says that “Transgender people, particularly low-income transgender people of color, experience some of the most egregious cases of police brutality… Police tend to target individuals who do not conform to gender stereotypes.” Amnesty International points to “the lack of transgender-specific policies, procedures and training for law enforcement personnel… Out of the 29 police departments queried in AI’s survey, 21 (72 percent) report having no policy regarding interactions with transgender people, only five (17 percent) reported having any policy and three (10 percent) failed to provide a response.”

In New York City, the report says, “It is unclear whether or not the NYPD has a specific policy that governs interactions with transgender individuals.”

Police frequently “profile” the transgendered as criminals—in particular, as sex workers—even when they are law-abiding and are engaged in their regular, day-to-day lives. For example, in New York in 2004, “an African American transgender woman told AI that she was leaving a meeting at the Gay and Lesbian Center in the West Village when she was stopped by a white male officer for ‘prostitution’ while walking down Christopher Street. The officer allegedly took her bag, emptied out the contents and threatened to hit her with his stick if he saw her again.”

An incident that took place as a prison reform group gathered in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn in November 2003, reported in Gay City News, is unfortunately typical of the cases involving transgendered Americans in the Amnesty International report.

“A transgender man reported attending a fundraising event in Brooklyn, New York,” the AI study stated. “The fundraising event was attended by many LGBT people of color. Police officers reportedly saw four individuals standing outside the event drinking alcoholic beverages in public, a misdemeanor offense. The transgender activist reportedly took photographs of two undercover officers. Two officers allegedly grabbed him, pushed him down on the trunk of the car, kicked his legs apart and repeatedly hit his head against the trunk, then handcuffed him. According to witnesses, the police began indiscriminately spraying people with mace… punching people, beating them with billy-clubs and dragging them along the sidewalk. The transgender man reported witnessing a ‘queer’ Latino man in a fetal position on the ground being kicked by four officers. He also reported seeing police pull a black woman by her hair to the ground and beat her with their batons. According to the organization holding the event, at least 20 people suffered injuries in the course of the incident, including blunt trauma, lacerations, contusions and lower back spasms. One person reportedly required medical treatment for a hematoma on his right frontal skull caused by a severe blow to the head. Eight people were reportedly arrested but all charges against them were later dismissed at trial. AI understands that a civil lawsuit against NYPD is now pending.”

In fact, the AI report documents numerous instances of police violence against transgendered New Yorkers, including the 1998 case involving JaLea Lamot, also reported by Gay City News.

“Two NYPD officers, summoned in response to a 911 request for medical assistance in the Bronx, are alleged to have attacked JaLea Lamot, a transgender woman,” the report states. “According to witnesses, police officers verbally abused her and pushed her against a wall after discovering she was a transgender woman. A large number of officers reportedly entered the apartment and family members and a visiting neighbor were beaten, maced and arrested.”

Lamot’s family filed a civil lawsuit alleging police misconduct, and in 2002 settled with the city for a financial award of $360,000.

In another incident in New York, also in the 1990s, “Sammy Velez, a transgender woman, reportedly snatched a purse and two officers chased her. Velez fell to the floor and was beaten and kicked by the officers. As a result her left eyeball was reportedly ruptured, and her collarbone and facial bones were fractured. The City of New York paid Velez $75,000 to settle a claim that the police used excessive force in blinding her left eye. Reportedly, the officers involved were not disciplined.”

The so-called “quality of life” police policy instituted by former Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1993 comes in for sharp criticism in the Amnesty report as an excuse for selective enforcement and police abuse. The report stated that the group found “a pattern of discriminatory enforcement of…‘quality of life’ regulations against members of LGBT communities, in particular transgender individuals, LGBT people of color, LGBT youth, homeless and poor individuals, and those engaged or perceived to be engaged in sex work,” and noted that “NYPD officials told AI that ‘quality of life.’ enforcement remains an important aspect of police activity.”

Evidence in the AI reports makes clear that the pattern of abuse, as illustrated by the 2003 Prospect Heights incident, appears unchanged during the administration of Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The report cites a study undertaken in 2003 by FIERCE!, a community organizing initiative in Lower Manhattan.

“The organization found that 59 out of 60 respondents had experienced police harassment, violence, or misconduct,” the report stated. “The majority of complaints alleged verbal abuse, harassment, and threats of arrest. Of these, 15 respondents felt they were targeted on the basis of their sexual orientation, 13 on the basis of their race.”

AI points to another transgender abuse case from 2003.

“A Filipino transgender man who was arrested in New York in 2003,” Amnesty reports. “When he gave the police his ID and papers, an officer said, ‘I know what you are. I know your kind. I just want you to know you’re never going to have a family like me, kids like me, a dog like me. And know that whatever you strap on between your legs will never be as real or as big as mine. You’re going to end up like the rest of your kind: without a job, homeless and shooting up drugs.’ The police put him in a cell with female arrestees. Officers walked past him repeatedly, mocking his name and asking, ‘What is this thing?’”

The Amnesty International report also documents how even when LGBT people report hate crimes, their complaints are often ignored. A recent case that occurred in New York just weeks after the 9-11 attacks illustrates this phenomenon.

“Two lesbians of color reported that two men in Brooklyn, NY, followed, harassed and threatened them, saying, ‘I’m going to kill you, bitch You’re not a man… I’m gonna put you in your place,’ the report states. “The verbal abuse escalated to physical abuse; the two women called 911. When police were told this was a homophobic crime, the officers reportedly left without further investigating the incident or taking a complaint, telling the ambulance attendants responding to the women’s call to leave. One woman reportedly was bleeding from the head due to a blow from one of the men. Her companion stated, ‘It was ridiculous. There she was running down the street bleeding and chasing after the ambulance.’”

“Police officers are hired to protect and serve all of their communities, not only the ones they deem worthy,” said Michael Heflin, director of Amnesty International USA’s OUTfront program, which focuses on LGBT human rights. “Every human being, without exception, has the right to live free from discrimination and abuse, yet LGBT people nationwide are afraid to report hate crimes or other abuses to the police, who at times prove themselves to be the criminals. If we can’t count on law enforcement to set an example, hate crimes and discrimination will continue to flourish in a land that otherwise has made relative headway in the fight for LGBT rights.”

DOUG IRELAND can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.

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