By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has frozen hires into the District's award-winning Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit and wants to train patrol officers to respond to the specialty calls, a plan that has drawn anger from the gay community.
Gay-rights advocates say Lanier's cost-cutting move puts a vulnerable population at risk at a time when hate crimes are on the rise.
The Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, which is staffed with gay officers, is down to four members from seven, and Lanier said she will not fill vacancies. Instead, starting in November, officers from the patrol division who want to work with the gay community can volunteer for special training, and those newly trained officers will be available during their regular shifts to respond to incidents in the gay community.
Lanier said that approach will increase the number of available officers to more than 100 after several rounds of training in the next few months. But advocates say it will strike a blow to the unit's effectiveness. Some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people relied on the familiarity and trust they had built with the officers in the unit -- who responded to crime scenes no matter what time of day or night -- to answer the unit's 24-hour pager.
"We used to tell people, 'First you call 911; then call the GLLU,' " said Chris Farris, co-founder of Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence, a nonprofit group. "Now we've already had reports of people saying they've called the 24-hour page number and no one responds."
The debate highlights the tension between community policing and agency cost-cutting. Several months ago, Lanier disbanded the hostage negotiation team, another specialty police unit that responded to barricade situations, in favor or training officers throughout the city to handle such calls. Although the negotiators angrily denounced the plan and said it would put the community at risk, there was little public outcry because the unit was not widely known outside the police department and federal law enforcement.
By contrast, the GLLU is a visible example of policing tailored to community need. Founded in 2000, the unit has officers who do crime safety outreach at gay bars and nightclubs, attend community meetings and have walked in the parade of Capital Pride, the city's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender event. It is one of the few special units in the police department that has its own Web site and an office in Dupont Circle. The unit received national recognition in 2000 from Harvard University with a $100,000 "Innovation in Government" award.
The unit was formerly headed by Sgt. Brett Parson, a well-liked leader, but Lanier said that Parson put in for a voluntary transfer and was recently reassigned to patrol. The unit is being led by Sgt. Carlos Mejia, who also heads the Latino Liaison Unit.
Lanier said the cost of overtime, gas and mileage from officers in special units who need to respond to calls at all hours must be trimmed. In the past two years, the chief said she has trimmed more than 160 take-home cars, and the GLLU could not be exempt from the cost-cutting.
"We can no longer afford to have a handful of people in specialized units to cover large numbers of the population who have special needs," Lanier said. "There's no reason why I have to have that whole burden of that liaison unit on a handful of people when I've got more than 5,000 employees."
Lanier said she is going to take similar approaches with units that reach out to the city's Asian, Latino, and deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.
D.C. police, which track hate crimesttp://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1239,q,567500.aspSept