Transgender women's killings in Baltimore show strain between police and an oft-targeted group

Juliet Linderman / The Associated Press
August 30, 2014 10:37 AM

In this Aug. 28, 2014 picture, 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, who spent four years working as a sex worker, said the police were aggressive and dismissive when she 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?’” (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

BALTIMORE - The day after Mia Henderson's body was found in a Baltimore alley, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts invited members of the city's lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender 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 of violence perpetrated against a group all too accustomed to it.

Henderson, 26, whose legal name was Kevin Long, 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, previously known as Ricky Carlos 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, born Rodney Little, in April 2013, in a house in a low-income neighbourhood near the Baltimore City Schools headquarters. And back in July 2012, a transgender woman known as Tracy, born Lance Johnson, 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."

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 non-profit 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 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 streets.

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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