Badges of Courage: Local authorities across Central Florida and Tampa Bay aim in the direction of tolerance, not discrimination

By : Anna M. Johnson
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The Orlando Police Department Headquarters is tucked away inconspicuously on the Amway side of I-4. The “Ultimate Improvement Project” construction blocks most of the adjacent parking, leaving the closest available open spaces directly under the overpass. A stone staircase leads to the office.

Inside, all visitors are required to wear bright neon visitor passes. There is a small gift shop that sells police merchandise right next to the enclosed information desk. It is called the “Cop Shop.”

The United States’ relationship with its law enforcement officers has always been capricious. At its best, grateful but wary; and at its worst, the bulk of 2016.

This year has seen many police brutality-related deaths, especially in minority communities; Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are two well-known cases. The July 7 attack in Dallas that killed five police officers was the deadliest for law enforcement since 9/11.

On June 12, when an active shooter opened fire on Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding 53 more in the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history, the Orlando Police Department’s relationship with the city’s LGBT residents was opened up for conversation – Pride parades in cities across the United States often had solemn displays of solidarity for Orlando and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

A conversation about law enforcement’s history with gays is anything but quiet.

According to a 2015 report by the Williams Institute of Law at the University of California Los Angeles, “Liquor licensing laws were used to raid establishments patronized by gay and lesbian people long before the Stonewall riots of 1969. Police similarly relied on laws prohibiting lewdness, vagrancy and disorderly conduct to harass gay and lesbian people when congregating in public…as recently as the summer of 2009, four bar raids occurred in LGBT bars throughout the South.”

The study goes on to say, “A 2009 Williams Institute study of public sector employment discrimination found a long history of discrimination against LGBT law enforcement officers which was grounded in the use of anti-sodomy laws to deny employment based on sexual orientation…Federal, state and local governments denied law enforcement positions (among other positions) to LGBT people because they were potential felons under state sodomy laws. In some states, blanket policies expressly barred LGBT people from becoming law enforcement officers based on this rationale. These policies, as well as individualized decisions to exclude LGBT people from law enforcement positions, were often upheld by courts.”

The Orlando PD has been listening to the public since before the Pulse shooting and is making strides toward equality from the inside.

Lieutenant Jim Young is the LGBT liaison for the Orlando Police Department. He has worked at the department since 1997.

Lt. Young oversees what is called OPD’s LGBT taskforce, among other jobs. The taskforce is a combined unit of officers that identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies of the community. The main function of the unit is to address any issues that may come up in relation to their subjects.

“We just want the community to know that we are here for them,” Young says.

Orlando’s LGBT population has changed drastically in size over the 19 years Young has been with the Orlando Police. He recounts rancorous protests against the Orlando City Council for its passing of inclusive ordinances years ago and contrasts it to the flood of solidarity that’s been seen since the Pulse nightclub shooting.

“As [Mayor Buddy Dyer] said, we aren’t going to let the tragedy define us,” Young says. “We are progressing from that and are coming together as a community.”

In the past, he’s had people who are not openly gay approach him citing fears of reporting hate crimes. In light of Pulse, those concerns are more relevant than ever.

“They just didn’t feel comfortable going to the police,” Young says. “Once they meet with me, though, they tend to feel much more comfortable talking to law enforcement.”

Lt. Young identifies as gay. His office is decorated with plaques honoring his policing achievements – “Saving a Civilian from an Active Shooter,” reads one. A small canvas with a hand-painted rainbow heart on it sits below his computer monitor, the background of which is a picture of him with his partner of four years. He says he was given that painting by a civilian as a thank you for his work.

Young says that the first and most important step for any department is to foster acceptance within the agency. He leads most of the diversity and inclusivity trainings for the Orlando Police.

The LGBT taskforce works closely with outside organizations for these training exercises.

Equality Florida’s TransActionFlorida committee was formed two years ago in order to be at the forefront of the rapidly emerging transgender community. Its advisory council spans the state of Florida with 30 transgender advocates. These advocates have hosted transgender inclusiveness trainings with major corporations, school boards and the medical community focusing on how to work with and address transgender people.

The Orlando Police Department is actively seeking out more officers that can empathize with LGBTs, whether those applicants identify as heterosexual or homosexual.

“We are utilizing some of our recruiting efforts specifically in the LGBT community,” Young says. “This was in the works long before Pulse. We’ve been hosting recruiting booths at Pride events both in Orlando and all over the state of Florida.”

“To know that there are agencies that not only accept you but would love to have you work for them should be the goal for every company,” Young adds.

Young also talks about how much policing has changed since he began – more advanced equipment, different uniforms and the revision of a “tolerance” policy between officers.

“Nobody wants to just be tolerated,” Young says. “They want to be accepted.”

When transgender woman India Clarke was found murdered in Tampa on July 21, 2015, the committee had to shift its effort to an entirely new organization.

At least 21 transgender individuals were murdered in 2015. As of press time, at least 16 transgender Americans have lost their lives this year.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office was the department investigating Clarke’s murder. Spokesman Larry McKinnon identified Clarke as “a transgender,” and a media outlet referred to her as “a man wearing women’s clothes.”

Two months before Clarke’s murder, the Department of Justice hosted a voluntary “Transgender Cultural Competency” training in Greater Tampa. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did not attend.

The use of male pronouns to describe Clarke went so far as to actually impede the police investigation, according to Equality Florida’s Transgender Inclusion Director Gina Duncan.

Duncan credits this event with demonstrating the need to train specifically law enforcement on how to interact with transgender people.

“The best practices are in place here,” Duncan says. “When [other police departments] see what is working here in Orlando, they should be able to take those policies and embrace them.”

So far in 2016, Hillsborough County has declined to recognize June as LGBT Pride and History Month, citing the public’s opposition. A citizen commenting on the proposition to recognize LGBT Pride and History Month at a July 20 Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners board meeting is quoted, saying, “It’s not hate that we’re talking about but we also believe that the LGBT agenda is not God’s plan for humanity,” in a tweet by Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Contorno. Tampa does, however, host a Pride parade in March.

The Tampa Police Department was headed by Chief Jane Castor until her retirement in 2015. Castor was the Tampa PD’s first woman police chief, promoted from her role as the department’s liaison to the LGBT community. She’s also openly lesbian.

No activist organization expects every officer in a police department to be perfectly aligned with its values, but the City of Tampa has had various incidents of discrimination, specifically against the transgender population.

Tampa resident Shayla Davis has had mixed results in her interactions with police at two different traffic stops. Both times she was travelling with her then-boyfriend,who identifies as transgender.

“His name is changed but the ‘F’ is still on his license,because he hasn’t gotten the surgery yet,” Davis said in a Facebook message. “The first officer was really rude about it and kept calling him ‘ma’am’ after he explained his license to him, but the second officer didn’t search him or question his license.”

Duncan says that this inconsistency is exactly what the TransActionFlorida committee is aiming to eliminate.

Equality Florida and the Orlando PD have been doing their parts to teach law enforcement officials the proper way to talk about and talk to transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. The Valencia College Peace and Justice Initiative recently hosted an inclusivity workshop led by the Department of Justice, Equality Florida’s TransActionFlorida committee and the members LGBT police taskforce.

Duncan calls it a huge success.

“We had 120 people there from all branches of law enforcement: TSA agents, first responders, firefighters and regular OPD officers, with their holsters and pistols and everything,” Duncan says.

Lt. Young agrees.

“It’s not the community and then law enforcement,” Young says. “It’s the community and law enforcement working together.”

Training these officers is only one half of the solution to a time-sensitive problem for transgender citizens.

“This discrimination against transgender people shows two things,” Duncan says. “A lack of tolerance and a lack of education.”

People can be taught the appropriate way to treat the LGBTQ+ population, but they cannot be taught how to actually care, Duncan says.

“Hillsborough County has always been a challenge,” she says. “We find that it always starts at the top: city councils, the mayor’s office. When you outlaw having a Pride festival, it trickles down to the police department.”

Young credits the police’s success in Orlando to the strong relationship that they have with not only the LGBTQ+ community, but with the city’s people as a whole.

The Orlando Police Department frequently partners with the Parramore Kidz Zone and other organizations for at-risk youth. A popular event that the kids and officers collaborate on is called “Dragon Boating.” A team of officers and kids build and race in their own decorated long boat. Young shares that he’s been splashed with lake water from a stray paddle too many times to count.

His pride lies in what those connections with those kids help to do, though.

“They grow up understanding that the uniform isn’t necessarily who the person is inside,” he says. “They know that there’s a person behind that badge and that uniform.”

Young says that those human relationships are what makes a police department successful, whether the connection is made over a shared identity, a positive experience or treating any civilian with plain respect.

Walking out of the Orlando PD Headquarters’ front doors deposits visitors on a small balcony raised just high enough to see over the front parking lot, but not too high to be blocked by the highway above. In stark contrast to the busy drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, frustrated that the I-4 Ultimate “Unending Construction Project” has cursed them with what feels like an endless commute, the balcony is tranquil in its way.

The entire Orlando skyline can be seen from this balcony. As the sun sets past the SunTrust building, a warm glow bathes Church St., illuminating the silhouettes of policemen setting up barricades to block it off to through traffic for the night a mere mile north of the Pulse tragedy. Soon, drag queens will be descending on Hamburger Mary’s for that evening’s show, after all.They, and the entire LGBT community will need to be protected and served.

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