[Audio] D.C. Officer Visits Murray State to Discuss Ways to Improve LGBT Relations
More than two dozen western Kentucky law enforcement and public safety personnel received training this week at Murray State University to improve relations when interacting with the LGBT community. Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Sergeant Brett Parson, who led the workshop, said the discussion parallels with issues surrounding race and use of force.
Parson takes his training to police departments around the world, tailoring them to the area. He said despite nuances in laws and policies and procedures, there are often many similarities.
In doing research before coming to Kentucky, he found a lot of discussion around Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who garnered national attention last year for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
"There was really kind of the consensus, even on that issue, that people respected her right to dissent and her religious principles that she stood on, but most people felt pretty strongly that she needed to do her job as a government servant," Parson said.
Parson said he’s found that despite political divisions, people have more in common than not, particularly when it comes to human rights and ‘doing your job.’
Sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression aren’t topics traditionally talked about in law enforcement, he said, adding that law enforcement tends to be fairly conservative. The workshop, however, had lively discussion between officers with a wide range of experience.
Topics involved broaching the subject of asking someone how to address them, if they prefer 'sir' or 'ma'am.' Or finding a respectful and professional way to ask if two members of the same sex appear to be in an intimate relationship but don't disclose it to an officer when relevant.
Parson said police officers 'aren't robots' and are humans dealing with other humans. He said if respect and professionalism is maintained then the person will feel safe and cooperation will be gained. For example, if an officer pulls someone over for having a tail light out, the officer finds the person appears to be a cisgender male (identity conforming with typical social ideas of one's biological sex) but when handing over the drivers license presents a photo that appears to be female, with a female name and female gender marker.
He said this could be a moment of discomfort or fear for an officer who may be wondering 'is this person really the person I think they are? Are they trying to deceive me? Are they a wanted individual?' Or... 'is this person a member of the transgender community and I need to just be respectful and professional?'
Parson said first an officer should be aware of their own safety and act with appropriate training. But in most cases, he said, simply looking at the individual and saying 'thank you very much for giving me your drivers license, what name do you prefer I use? Do you prefer sir or ma'am?'
"And in most instances if that person is a member of the transgender community, the first thing that’s going to happen is that person is going to be so relieved that the officer gets it and is respectful and professional, that they’re going to divulge to them why that photograph looks, why the gender marker is the way it is and the officer is going to be put at ease immediately because they’re going to have an explanation that fits," Parson said.
Events like the Stonewall riots in New York City (an infamous police raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 that sparked a fight for LGBT rights) were fairly commonplace back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, Parson said, and the gay community was an 'easy target' because there weren't laws in place to protect them. He said society has evolved over 40 years to recognize LGBT people as a part of society and adds that change has more to do with life experience than specific training.
With internet and the expansion of mobile phone service, exposure to the LGBT community is much more common, he said. People 40 years ago may have never known an openly gay person but probably know someone now. He said people are coming into the police service now who know someone in the LGBT community and may have someone among their family or circle of friends.
Parson said community-oriented policing is the idea of infiltrating or exposing oneself to a community to develop a level of familiarity. When it comes to mistrust and misunderstandings with regards to policing, Parson said awareness has changed moreso than policing and public perception.
"While these incidents were probably occurring 30 years ago, we didn’t know about them. The community at large wasn’t made aware of them because we didn’t have the means to distribute that information widely. And so I don’t think that we’re seeing more of these incidents. I think we’re simply becoming aware of these incidents."
Awareness is a good thing, he said, if people have more information and can voice opinions, have discussions and change laws - so long as no harm comes to anyone as result of those changes, including the safety of police officers. He added laws also shouldn't harm a particular part of the community at the expense of officer safety.
When it comes to national movements like Black Lives Matter and Police Lives Matter, Parson says he doesn't support or oppose any of those groups. As a police officer, he supports their right to their opinions. He said on all sides of every issue there is ignorance (in an educational sense) and said the most important way to overcome most of the tension among the citizen community is by bringing people together and letting them talk in an honest and open forum where feelings can be shared and intelligent discussion can occur. He said officers need to teach citizens why they are grained the way they are trained and the consequence of changing anything with regards to police procedure. Likewise, citizens need to decide what they want police to do.
For instance, if society determines they don't want police officers to pull people over for broken tail lights because it too often results in people of a certain race, religion, gender or sexual orientation then that should be assessed and likewise any consequences of changing that law, for instance if it's determined that broken tail lights X percentage of the time that person doesn't have a drivers license or are wanted or illicit drugs or a gun. Do you want those people to go free, he said, to no longer enforce minor traffic violations. "That's a fair discussion to have, but everyone needs to have the facts before they make that decision," he said.
Parson returns to Washington D.C. He said he does five or ten trips a year training LGBT relations and said when he retires, he plans on doing more training sessions related to this issue.