D.C. advocates, police agree more reporting needed on bias-related incidents

July 5, 2011

Quincy Jones already knew he was gay, so when a group of street preachers hurled epithets at him one night last month outside the Columbia Heights Metro, he says, he shrugged it off.

Then, Jones says, it got uglier: “I’ll kill you where you stand,” one of the preachers shouted into
a microphone. Shaken, Jones called 911 from a nearby sandwich shop.

But the officer who responded was unimpressed when asked to take an incident report, according to Jones, 32. “He was like, ‘For what? For calling you a name?’ ”

Long-standing D.C. police policy requires officers to file reports on bias-related incidents, which can include name-calling and the posting of offensive fliers. But the number of reports they have taken has come under scrutiny. Through the first six months of this year, for example, only six incident reports have been filed.

Police and leaders in the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community agree that the number of reports should be significantly higher, but they offer different explanations for the statistics. Activists say residents already hesitant to report incidents are less likely to do so if police are believed to be unsympathetic; police cite low awareness of the policy within their ranks.

On Wednesday, police and community leaders will testify about city law enforcement’s response to sexual-orientation-related bias issues at a hearing held by the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary. It will be the third such hearing since 2008.

“We’ll focus on whether handling of hate crimes has gotten better and remind the police that we’re paying attention to this,” said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the committee’s chairman.

Police referred questions on the issue to Sgt. Carlos Mejia, who has supervised the department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit since 2009. Founded in 2000, the unit has trimmed staff in recent years but has also been hailed as a visible example of policing tailored to community need.

With enough data on hate crimes and bias-related incidents, Mejia said, the police could identify crime and incident patterns in certain neighborhoods. But the data have yet to yield usable trends. “Nothing is trending at this point,” Mejia said. “But we do know where they’re taking place.”

Bias-related reports can also help prosecutors as they pursue cases and recommend sentences, said Bill Miller, spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the District. “The U.S. attorney’s office wants as much information as possible so that defendants are held fully accountable for their crimes,” Miller said.

The police department has faced heightened scrutiny of its handling of hate and bias issues since 2008, when residents complained during council hearings that police did not adequately address three violent attacks on gay men.

Hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgender individuals made up 60 percent of all hate crimes reported in the District between 2005 and 2010, compared with 18 percent nationwide, according to D.C. police and FBI statistics.

“It’s been a continuing, long-standing problem,” Mendelson said. “I believe at the command level there is a sincerity about complying with hate-crime reporting requirements, but when it gets down to the actual implementation on the street, there’s always a problem with underreporting hate crimes or any bias-related incidents.”

Mejia said he believes officers’ reluctance to file bias-related incident reports is “rare.”

But gay, lesbian and transgender community leaders say word of incidents such as the one Jones reported travels fast.

“When you hear about people who have had bad experiences with the police, you become reluctant to participate and go to the police,” said Todd Metrokin, co-founder of a group called Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence. “And people are already hesitant to report these types of incidents.”

During a 2008 hearing, Metrokin testified that it took two weeks for police to begin investigating after he was severely beaten by a group of young men who screamed homophobic epithets.

And he recently reported an incident in which a man shouted homophobic slurs at him in public. The officer who responded to his call refused to take a report until Metrokin insisted he call his superior, Metrokin said.

“There seems to be a disconnect between what we’ve been told and how they’re handling it,” said Metrokin.

Mejia acknowledged that not every officer might be sensitive to issues affecting the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. But he said that advanced training sessions are available to department members.

“I’m sure we’ve had incidents where an officer was not aware of [the reporting policy], so that’s why we’ve been emphasizing this in training,” Mejia said. “These are areas where where not every [officer in a unit] will have recognition of these nuanced issues.”

Training sessions on issues affecting minority groups such as the gay, lesbian and transgender communities, offered four times a year, are not mandatory, Mejia said. About 3 percent of the force has completed the week-long training and received the designation of Special Liaison Unit-affiliate officers, he said. A smaller number have completed advanced training specific to gay, lesbian and transgender issues.

“The goal is to get people to volunteer to sign up for it,” Mejia said. “While the numbers at this point are low because of logistics, I think we’re very lucky to have a department that’s trying to get its officers the best training to be in tune with what the community needs.”

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