Police officers in upstate New York allegedly taunted and sexually assaulted a transgender woman after they were called for assistance during a dispute, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
DeAnna LeTray, 54, of Watertown, New York, filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the Northern District of New York on February 8 claiming the Watertown Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights after she was allegedly stripped naked, forcibly penetrated, subjected to excessive force, and mocked for being a transgender woman. The 22-page complaint lists several alleged offenses and is being handled by lawyers at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
The events unfolded in September of 2017 when LeTray had a nearly-fatal dispute with a landlord, according to the lawsuit. The landlord allegedly pointed a shotgun at LeTray and threatened to “Blow her head off.” During the argument, LeTray allegedly broke a window.
Police officers were called to the scene, but instead of aiding LeTray, they allegedly mocked her. And while authorities officially charged LeTray for allegedly damaging property and carrying a small bag of “molly” in her purse, those charges were later reduced to violations — and the complaint said cops actually arrested her because she is transgender. Cops allegedly told her they decided to arrest her because they did not want her to “walk the streets looking and dressed like that.”
Furthermore, the officer asked LeTray for her name and then misgendered her repeatedly, the lawsuit states.
“He called her a liar and told her she is ‘a guy’ and ‘a man dressed like a woman,'” the complaint states. “He then asked her, ‘how long have you dressed like that?’ Officer Samuel White also asked her questions about her sexuality and genitalia.”
The ride to the police station was just as traumatic for LeTray, according to the complaint.
“You have serious mental problems. You are a guy dressed like a woman,” the officer allegedly told LeTray.
When she arrived at the police station, officers allegedly forced LeTray to remove her hair for a booking photo. Officer Virginia Kelly allegedly told LeTray, “That is not your real hair. You have to take it off.” With tears streaming down her face, LeTray refused to remove her hair, and officers then charged her with obstruction of governmental administration in the second degree. She was able to take the picture the next morning.
While at Jefferson County Jail, LeTray was subjected to a strip search in a public area, the complaint notes. LeTray alleges that an officer fondled her genitals and penetrated her rectum with his fingers during the search. Under the jail’s policy, trans women who do not have “female genitalia” are searched by male correction officers.
In a written statement provided by the NYCLU, LeTray recalled the feeling she experienced while in custody
“The police were called for help. Instead, I was misgendered, assaulted, and dehumanized,” LeTray said. “I never want anyone to go through the abuse I experienced from people that were supposed to protect me. Watertown law enforcement and Jefferson County Jail staff must be held accountable for their actions. The abuses that police and jail staff across New York state commit against transgender New Yorkers must end.”
JP Perry, an NYCLU staff attorney, stressed that the alleged incidents did not occur in isolation.
“The mistreatment and abuse of transgender women by police and jail staff is widespread across New York State,” Perry said. “Thanks to Ms. LeTray’s courage and persistence, we’re taking action today to make it clear that police departments and jails statewide have an obligation to treat transgender people with dignity. We will continue fighting for the safety of transgender people across New York State.”
The lawsuit names Charles Donoghue, the police chief of Watertown; Colleen O’Neill, Jefferson County’s sheriff; Kristopher M. Spencer, a jail administrator; and an employee at the office; among others.
In 2018, New York State’s Division of Human Rights denied accepting LeTray’s discrimination claims, saying that they do not handle issues of police misconduct. Since the alleged incident, LeTray has experienced severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
She is seeking damages for the alleged abuse and is asking staff to delete the booking photo and identify and correct all police records that misgendered her.
The Watertown Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office declined to respond to Gay City News’ request for comment.
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