Antigay Crime Remains Steady in Washington Despite Work of Special Unit

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WASHINGTON -- It was just after 4 a.m. when the young man turned down his street toward his apartment. In the dark, another man fell in step behind him, demanding his bag. The young man ran, as shouted slurs trailed him. On the front steps of his apartment building, under a security camera, the pursuer's fists began pummeling his face.

The beating of the 23-year-old gay man last month in the city's Columbia Heights neighborhood was among dozens of episodes reported this year against Washington's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents -- violence that has stirred apprehension over the frequency of such crimes as well as criticism of the Police Department's response.

City data indicates that reports of antigay bias crimes have been rising. There is disagreement over whether the numbers reflect an actual increase in violence, more reporting of crimes, better record-keeping by the police or some combination of all three.

But some leaders in the city's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population have been vocal about their frustration with Chief Cathy L. Lanier, saying that changes she brought to a police unit known as the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit have hindered the city's response.

At times, the frustration has been mutual. Chief Lanier says the department has been doing everything in its power to stem the violence, going so far as to seek an outside review of the department's procedures that have been the subject of criticism. The results of that review are expected late this year or in early 2013.

"We feel like everything that we can do, we're doing, and yet we get these complaints back from some of the advocates," she said.

The tensions peaked last year after a wave of high-profile attacks, including a street killing and an episode in which an off-duty police officer shot at transgender women he tried to solicit for sex. The officer, Kenneth Furr, was convicted last month.

There have been no street killings this year, but neither has there been a lull in the violence. Through October, the department had recorded 51 hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender residents, just short of the record 53 for all of 2011. This spring, two back-to-back attacks in Columbia Heights prompted a march through the neighborhood.

After Chief Lanier took over in 2007, she made changes to the department's gay and lesbian unit, which had won a prestigious award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government the year before and a $100,000 grant. (Similar specialized units focus on the city's Asian, deaf and Latino residents.)

The changes included distributing the unit's duties to officers throughout the city, rather than clustering the officers in Dupont Circle, once the city's gay epicenter. Those officers, numbering about 100 in all, received training for interacting with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

Critics say that the vaunted unit has languished, and that sprinkling its duties departmentwide -- while a promising idea -- has not proved effective because not all officers have received the training to recognize and respond appropriately to a hate crime.

"The events of 2011, the intense violence, really showed that the restructuring had failed to create any kind of meaningful reaction and response," said Jason A. Terry, an anti-violence activist and a volunteer with the DC Trans Coalition.

In the Columbia Heights case last month, gay and lesbian advocates have questioned why the responding officer did not recognize potential signs of a hate crime and initially recorded it as not being one.

Chief Lanier said the victim initially did not tell the responding officer about the slurs that were shouted. After word reached the gay and lesbian unit that bias may have played a role, members of the unit reinterviewed the man, who is Latino, and afterward determined that his attacker had yelled ethnic and antigay slurs. The attack is now under investigation as a hate crime, she said. "That was not mishandled by police officers," she said.

The chief was adamant that spreading out the duties of the unit throughout the city was a wise decision. "Where we only had five people before, now I've got over 100 people and they're spread out around the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. "Now they can serve a much larger population."

Few doubt that the department takes the violence seriously, and many see positive signs in recent efforts to collaborate with anti-violence groups. That includes a task force that meets to review crime data and organize trainings for officers.

"They're not perfect, and I don't think they ever will be, but I do believe that they are engaged with the community," June Crenshaw, the chairwoman of the anti-violence Rainbow Response Coalition, said of the department.

Yet frustrations linger. Gay and lesbian community leaders were astonished to learn recently that the department had instigated an internal affairs inquiry into the Kennedy School grant that the unit won in 2006 and that it had abandoned a non-department Web site with information for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, like safety tips and links to outside organizations, after a volunteer said he could no longer maintain the site, which was financed by the grant.

A nonprofit organization that has handled the money for the last few years accounted for all the expenditures and remaining funds, which total slightly more than $49,000, according to a tabulation provided by the treasurer of the group, called Brother, Help Thyself.

Chief Lanier said the investigation was only to determine where money for the volunteer Web site was coming from. "There was no misuse of the funds," she said.

Virtually every major metropolitan police department has some unit or protocols for responding to hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, but Washington's unit has long been considered a model, said Sharon Stapel, the executive director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York.

While relations with the department have sometimes been fraught of late, little of that tension was evident at a recent open house for the unit. In the freshly painted basement of the building near Dupont Circle, community activists crowded around trays of shrimp and cold cuts.

A member of the unit handed out commendations to activists, and a comedian performed a stand-up act. Officers brought out a sheet cake and sang "Happy Birthday" to the assistant chief, Diane Groomes, who acknowledged that relations had been strained.

"I know we're not perfect and we have a way to go, but I think little by little, with support of the community, we're definitely getting better every day," she said.

Some attendees said they were pleased with department efforts to mend relationships with the city's gay and lesbian residents. Ruby Corado, 42, who runs a transgender advocacy group, said she was impressed by changes in the department.

"I have seen a huge improvement," she said, as she nibbled on shrimp. "I have seen the attitude of some officers changing. Before it was all bad, honestly, I have to say."

Others are not yet convinced. A. J. Singletary, a co-chairman of a city anti-violence group called Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence, said he feared that Chief Lanier's commitment to improvement had not reached all the way through the ranks of the department.

"I know that's what Chief Lanier wants, and that's what we want," he said. "Now we just want to make sure that actually happens."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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