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Four unsolved murders of transgender women test Baltimore police outreach

Kayla Gilchrist Jones
Kayla Gilchrist Jones stands outside her workplace in Baltimore. Four killings of transgender women in Baltimore in two years is highlighting the strained relationship between law enforcement and the LGBT community and sparking conversations about how to ease the tension. Jones said the police were aggressive and dismissive when she became the victim of sexual violence in 2008. Patrick Semansky, AP

BALTIMORE — The day after Mia Henderson’s body was found in a Baltimore alley, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts invited members of the city’s LGBT community to a meeting. “We are listening. We are paying attention,” he told them. “We are responding, and we are taking this very seriously.”

That isn’t nearly enough, advocates and some citizens say, after the second unsolved killing of a transgender woman in as many months, and the fourth in two years.

The killings have cast fresh light on efforts to ease tension between police and the LGBT population in Baltimore, and on the disproportionate share violence perpetrated against a group all too accustomed to it.

Henderson, 26, was found beaten to death in the early morning hours of July 16, near a strip known to be a hotspot for sex work. Henderson was the sibling of NBA point guard Reggie Bullock, who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Five weeks earlier, the body of Kandy Hall was discovered in a field behind a post office on a run-down block of Northeast Baltimore.

There are “similarities” between the Hall and Henderson killings, Baltimore Police spokesman John Kowalczyk said, but he declined to elaborate.

Those deaths followed the fatal shooting of Kelly Young in April 2013, in a house in a low-income neighborhood near the Baltimore City Schools headquarters. And back in July 2012, a transgender woman known as Tracy was shot to death on a clean, quiet street near downtown, on a block that also hosts a Baptist church.

All four killings took place in different parts of the city, and all remain unsolved.

After Young was shot last year, fellow transgender woman LaSaia Wade stopped taking the bus to her night shift at the gas company, instead arranging for car rides from friends.

“We’re very scared,” Wade said after the most recent killing. “It makes you want to change your routine.”

Batts became commissioner in September of 2012, weeks after the first of the four deaths. Under him, the department released its first LGBT recruitment video, and developed a cultural sensitivity training regimen for police officers, Kowalczyk said, looking to departments including Montreal, San Francisco, Atlanta, and nearby Washington for best practices.

The Atlanta Police Department employs two full-time LGBT community liaisons, including Senior Police Officer Brian Sharp, who works with the State Department and the Justice Department on strategies for investigating LGBT-related hate crimes and bridging the gap between LGBT individuals and law enforcement agencies.

Sharp said he investigates about 65-70 cases a year in which a member of the LGBT community is a victim. But he also spends a lot of time trying to make connections outside the context of crime — speaking at the city’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance and taking part in the Trans March during Atlanta Pride, for instance.

“It’s a fine line, a delicate balance to not be overly involved to where they feel like the police are too present,” he said, “but we want to show support and be a part of the community outside of just when there’s tragedy.”

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