Two commentators today take issue with the D.C. police department’s relationship with the gay and lesbian community, prompted by reports that officers ignored what appeared to be a bias-motivated attack in Columbia Heights late last month.
The incident has renewed calls to revisit Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s decision to rejigger the department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. In 2009, Lanier moved to disband what had been a dedicated unit of as many as seven officers based in Dupont Circle with additional training for more officers patrolling in all parts of the city.
A Post editorial notes: “Some advocates worry that the chief’s changes have weakened the unit. The city needs a robust liaison office as much as ever.” And in the Blade, political activist Peter Rosenstein writes that the gay community’s relations with Lanier have “gone steadily downhill,” in no small part because of the GLLU changes. He adds: “Although the chief’s concept of a GLLU spread out across the District is a nice idea conceptually, the MPD isn’t ready to effectively implement that.”
After two years, the questioning of Lanier’s liaison overhaul have not gone away, and my impression is that it has more to do with politics than policing.
From a policing standpoint, the development of gay liaison duties makes a lot of sense. There are gay residents and hate-motivated crimes in all parts of the city, not just in Dupont and its environs. Officers in all seven police districts should know how to deal with them with professionalism and sensitivity.
But the great advantage of having a dedicated unit — or more, to the point, having at least officer dedicated to gay issues — is having a credible and effective advocate for the department in the community, and an advocate for the community in the department.
When Rosenstein and others lament the departure of Sgt. Brett Parson, who was the face and driving force of the GLLU for years, what they miss is a cop who, as an openly gay man, could level with the well-organized gay advocates and give them confidence in the police force. Parson was also a cop’s cop with a solid reputation inside the department who could fight within the force to improve response to gay community issues.
What Lanier, who is otherwise politically shrewd herself, might not have fully appreciated when disbanding the standalone GLLU is that it played a significant role in managing community politics — and by neglecting the politics, the policing (and the department’s reputation) can suffer.
Update, 3:20 p.m.: Lanier writes in an e-mail:
Overall, having officers trained in the knowledge and tactics of the special liaison officers, but who are assigned to and remain in the field, will better serve the interests of the entire city. I think you’ll appreciate the advantages of this model even more when you realize that the allegation that I have ’disbanded’ the central liaison units is completely false. Not only do the core liaison units – Asian, Deaf & Hard of Hearing, Gay & Lesbian, and Latino – continue to operate as before, but they now serve as the hub of the affiliate program. More than 120 affiliate officers have gone through intensive training, and they are currently being detailed to the central liaison units for a 30-day immersion training two at a time.
For the GLLU specifically, the staffing is similar to the past. At its height, I believe there were 7 officers in the unit; we now have four officers assigned, one on long-term detail, and 2 affiliates rotating through for 30-day details.
So as you see, reports of the demise of GLLU have been greatly exaggerated.