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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Police departments in both major cities and smaller jurisdictions have made significant progress in meeting the service needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities in recent years through better training and the provision of culturally competent services. However, this year, there is a growing number of local advocacy organizations have taken steps to ban the departments that serve their cities from participating in Pride parades and celebrations in June.
Despite this development, departments have not become dismayed or lost perspective about the need to build capacity to better serve LGBTQ populations in their jurisdictions. Among the most common approaches agencies rely on to improve their effectiveness in serving the LGBTQ community is the establishment of liaison officers and units.
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) is believed to be the first department in the United States to establish an LGBT Liaison Officer position. In 1962, the SFPD appointed Elliot Blackstone to work within the department to change policy and procedures that impacted the LGBTQ community. Today, the number of LGBTQ liaison units nationwide has increased and become an integral part of broader community policing strategies to crime response and reduction.
In 1998, two visionary female officers in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) began working as liaison officers in a district that served a neighborhood viewed as the center of the city’s LGBTQ community and nightlife. They focused primarily on outreach and training (primarily on hate crimes and cultural competency for LGBTQ issues) for MPD officers. However, it did not take long for them to grow frustrated by the emotional demands of the job and the active lack of support that they received from some officers and commanders. The two officers eventually informed the chief that the unit needed the leadership of a supervisor who was respected among the rank and file and who was capable of effectively navigating internal pushback. This led to the chief calling Sergeant Brett Parson while he was on vacation to inform him that he had been reassigned and on his return would begin leading the MPD’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, later renamed the LGBT Liaison Unit.
Sgt. Parson, who ended up finishing his career as a lieutenant in charge of all MPD liaison units, was initially not happy about his new job with the LGBT Liaison Unit. At the time, he was assigned to the MPD’s narcotics strike force and was concerned that his professional reputation would be hurt by the reassignment. “I was wearing plain clothes, driving an undercover car, growing my hair out, wearing my gun on my ankle, jumping out on felony drug dealers, and flipping them for homicide cases. It was the assignment of a lifetime,” said Parson. “I was really, really afraid that my reputation was going to change from being a good cop who happened to be gay, to being a gay cop that used to be a good cop”.
Given the concern for his reputation and his desire to continue actively fighting crime, Sgt. Parson added to the unit’s earlier missions of outreach and hate crimes training. He ensured that aggressive policing was incorporated into the unit’s duties, specifically responding to crimes and incidents involving the LGBTQ community. He was able to expand the unit to have 15 full-time, volunteer, and reserve members and a citywide focus and to be available to respond 24/7. “We were working weekends and evenings, and midnights when the clubs were open and responding to all of that stuff. Internally, everyone in the department knew that if they called us, we would come. On occasion, we would respond and actually take over the call for them by modeling the best way to handle the case,” added Parson. The unit was also very aggressive in the community. They would tell people to call 911 first during a crisis and then to call the Liaison Unit so they could also respond.
In smaller jurisdictions or those where an entire liaison unit may not be possible, individual liaison officers are also able to have an impact. San Jose, California, is an example of one such jurisdiction. In addition to their chief having an LGBTQ advisory board, a liaison officer maintains relationships with LGBTQ community organizations and coordinates multi–government agency responses to the needs of the community. San Jose’s liaison officer also supports the focused recruitment of LGBTQ officers.
Corporal Danielle Woods is the LGBT Liaison Officer with the Detroit (Michigan) Police Department (DPD); she serves as one as one of several liaison officers in the Chief’s Neighborhood Liaison Division. Each officer in the division has responsibility for a specific population in the broader community that may have unique needs. She was appointed to that role before there was an established program in place, and she was encouraged to speak with other departments to learn more about their approach and develop a training program. Woods even reached out to a local advocacy group to become familiar with their training in the hope of modifying it to meet her needs.
“I reached out and I was underwhelmed. In talking with these departments, all they could tell me about was Pride (LGBTQ Pride Month celebrations each June), and I’m thinking, what happens from July through May,” said Cpl. Woods. She then teamed up with a local organization to join her and provide training to officers in her department, which did not go well. “Their hearts were in the right place, but their delivery was from a biased perspective,” according to Woods. “They talked at the officers, not with them.”
In the end, Cpl. Woods simply took some training on instructor development, created her own training, and got feedback from her local community advocates. She then submitted her curriculum to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. Her training was certified, and it has become sought after. It is now mandatory for DPD recruits and is offered in-service, and she provides it to the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Transportation Security Administration. In addition, detectives and investigators are now required by policy to inform her about all LGBTQ-related incidents, whether they occur among or against LGBTQ community members. She heads the DPD’s LGBTQ Community Council and ensures that the community has a seat at the table and a voice in policy issues. She is also excited about the addition of a co-liaison to relieve the never ending demand for services that her work has generated.
Unlike with many disciplines in the law enforcement profession, there are no known groups or organizations that maintain a sole focus on supporting LGBTQ liaison officers and units. However, many officers and departments turn to Out To Protect as a rallying point for advancing their liaison efforts. Out To Protect has established a network of liaison officers around the country and is a good source for information on starting and strengthening LGBTQ liaison units. The organization’s primary mission is to create greater awareness of LGBTQ professionals working in law enforcement, but it has evolved into a resource for liaison officers as well.
Greg Miraglia is the President and CEO of Out To Protect. He is a 35-year veteran of law enforcement and serves as a part-time college faculty member teaching courses in LGBTQ studies and on a variety of law enforcement topics. According to Miraglia, “Things are beginning to shift. . . . There is an interest by law enforcement across the country in providing LGBT Awareness Training to officers, which at the heart of it, is about interacting effectively and respectfully with LGBT folks.” Out To Protect offers Awareness Trainings, scholarships for aspiring LGBTQ officers, reading materials that can help increase cultural competency, and liaison-specific resources through its Liaison Network.
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