Four unsolved murders of transgender women test Baltimore police outreach

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Monica StevensPatrick Semansky, AP

Monica Stevens is a transgender woman who runs a support group called Sisters of the T.

The Washington Metropolitan Police Department has had a Gay and Lesbian Unit focusing on public safety in that group since 1999. It has one full-time sergeant and five full-time officers, as well as two rotating spots for patrol officers. Members of the unit “use a wide variety of outreach strategies,” Sgt. Matthew Mahl, the unit’s liaison, said in an email.

On day shifts, officers could be meeting and attending planning sessions with a group that helps survivors of domestic violence. In the evening, the officers “might be in ‘club zones’ passing out robbery prevention materials,” Mahl said, “and at night they might be working with nonprofit organizations who target survival sex workers on the streets trying to get them appropriate resources.”

In Baltimore, Batts established an LGBT Advisory Council last summer after a gay man was severely beaten.

Aaron Merki, an attorney who serves on the council, said it was the council that requested the meeting between the commissioner and LGBT residents after Henderson’s death last month.

Some transgender women in Baltimore say the department still has a long way to go before it establishes a solid relationship with them.

“The police should tone down their masculinity so they can really hear what we’re saying,” said Monica Stevens, a 60-year-old transgender woman who runs a support group called Sisters of the T.

Cydne Kimbrough, 37, a transgender rights activist who led a workshop for Baltimore police on LGBT awareness, said police are often insensitive to the deep-seated issues that drive LGBT individuals into illegal activities that can, in turn, make them particularly vulnerable to violence. Widespread discrimination, Kimbrough said, is at the root of the problem.

According to a recently released study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 90 percent of the 6,450 transgender individuals surveyed said they have experienced harassment, mistreatment or bias in the workplace, which sometimes led them to seek employment selling drugs or sex.

Eleven percent of those interviewed said they worked as prostitutes. One-fifth of those interviewed were or had been homeless, according to the study, and more than half dropped out of school before high school graduation due to physical attacks and verbal abuse.

Kayla Gilchrist Jones, who spent four years working as a sex worker, said the police were aggressive and dismissive when she herself became the victim of sexual violence in 2008.

“I wish I had never said a damn thing,” Jones said. “The first thing the cop asked me was, ‘What were you going to charge him?'”

The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault, but Jones asked specifically for her name to be used.

Jones said Henderson and Hall had worked as prostitutes. Henderson, said Jones, told her shortly before she died that she was trying to get off the street.

Ultimately, better relationships foster better police work, said Kowalczyk, who is gay and served as the department’s liaison to the LGBT community from 2008 to 2012, a part-time role that’s still in place.

“Trust and safety go hand in hand,” he said.

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