APD’s new transgender policies offer guidelines to police

Advocates applaud move but want more info on officer punishment, profiling

The Atlanta Police Department recently joined a small number of law enforcement agencies nationwide when it unveiled procedures outlining how officers should interact with the city’s transgender and gender-nonconforming residents.

In new four-page document released last week, APD specifies new guidelines for officer to exhibit professionalism and courtesy during interactions with the public and with colleagues including transgender, intersex, or gender-nonconforming individuals.

Brian Sharp, an APD senior police officer and LGBT liaison, says the policy has been in the works for about two years. He says the new procedures will increase the “amount of respect we have within the community and for the community.”

“There were only a handful that I could find around the country,” Sharp says. “We’ve trained all of our sworn officers, all of our civilian employees have received the training as well.”

The policy recommends that officers use the name and pronoun given by the individual, whether or not it matches gender assigned at birth, and generally be respectful. It also says that personal items associated with a person’s gender identity, such as prosthetics, clothing and wigs, are subject to search, but can be retained by the person if “reasonable safety concerns” are resolved. APD’s written records will match government ID, subject to an employee’s “verification” of gender if a person has no ID with them.

While very few police departments have a written transgender policy, more agencies have moved in that direction over about the last year, said Jennifer Orthwein of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, Calif. Also, in 2012, the federal government also approved formal procedures to enforce the Prison Rape Elimination Act. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, LGBT and gender nonconforming people are at higher risk of sexual assault in prison than other inmates.

“It’s partly nondiscrimination laws regarding gender and transgender people,” she says. “There’s also been a lot of awareness of particularly trans communities not trusting the police.”

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An estimated one of every five transgender people who have had an interaction with local police report harassment, according to a 2011 nationwide survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The share rose to 38 percent among African Americans. Nearly half the survey’s participants reported feeling uncomfortable seeking police assistance.

Earlier this year, two trans women were attacked on a MARTA train while most bystanders did nothing, and one shot a cell phone video that went viral online. One of the victims claimed that MARTA police, a separate agency from APD, did not help the victim when she tried to report the attack. MARTA denied that claim.

Mayor Kasim Reed’s LGBT Advisor Robin Shahar said the focus on trans rights has been a priority for the city. Shahar says that police often aren’t trying to be disrespectful, but that they don’t know the proper way to approach transgender people.

“The trans community … does not have the same level of acceptance in general in the community, in the city, and across the country,” Shahar says. “There’s so much education to be done.”

The kind of intensive education that APD officers will get under the formal SOP is “critical,” Shahar says, because it offers written instructions on manners toward a minority who are so newly out of the closet that they are often little known or understood.

In July 2013, Atlanta City Council passed official laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identification. Shahar said she’s continuing to look into other city departments where policy updates might be beneficial.

“I’m excited that APD is taking this step,” said Everette Thompson of the Racial Justice Action Center, a social justice nonprofit. It’s part of the Solutions Not Punishment Coalition, which is seeking pretrial diversion programs and other help for sex workers. SNaP Co focuses especially on transgender men and women caught in the business. “If we are able to move policies and procedures,that’s going to help all of us and strengthen the fabric of our community.”

Thompson also said the partners in SNaP Co intend to send their feedback on the policy to APD. One edit, he suggested, might be to specify the recommended punishment for an officer in violation of the new policy. Orthwein said she found the policy “somewhat vague,” especially when it came to search protocols.

According to Thompson, one problem left unaddressed is that trans people, especially trans women of color, are often unfairly profiled by police as prostitutes and face arrest. Sharp says that he’s heard that complaint at public meetings, but says he is not aware of a specific example. Shahar said people do not get arrested for simply idling or walking down the street.

Anyone who has a complaint should call the Office of Professional Standards or him, Sharp said.

“But that’s one of the reasons that we wanted to put certain things in the SOP about how to treat people, how to identify people,” Sharp said. It’s a publication in black-and-white of what’s expected of officers.