How Police Fail to ‘Protect and Serve’ LGBTQ Communities of Color

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Police killings of unarmed black men and women—such as this summer’s shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—have highlighted the need, long recognized by racial-justice advocates, for a more critical examination of the ways in which police fail to “protect and serve” some of our country’s most marginalized communities. 

These killings have forwarded a national conversation on how institutional and interpersonal bias within police forces negatively impacts communities of color—including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities of color. In fact, a new report by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project demonstrates how intersecting forms of racism, transphobia and homophobia create uniquely unsafe conditions for LGBTQ people of color who interact with police and the broader criminal-justice system.

LGBTQ people of color, particularly transgender women of color, experience a significant amount of violence. According to FBI data, LGBTQ people are the most likely group to experience a hate crime, and a recent report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs shows that 60 percent of hate violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected people was against people of color.

Just this summer, at least two black transgender women were murdered: Dee Whigham, a 25-year-old nurse who was murdered in her hotel room in Mississippi, and Deeniquia Dodds, a 22-year-old who was shot near her home in Washington, D.C. These murders are part of a larger, disturbingtrend of transgender women being murdered across the country.

However, despite documented high rates of violence, police are often indifferent or even hostile to LGBTQ people of color seeking help. According to the 2016 NCAVP report, 80 percent of LGBTQ and HIV-positive survivors of hate violence who reached out to police reported that police were either indifferent or hostile toward them. In addition, despite a clear need, LGBTQ people are reporting these experiences to police less and less often, likely because pervasive police violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people leads them to mistrust law enforcement.

Not only do police often fail to protect LGBTQ people of color from violence, but police also sometimes punish them for being victimized. Police officers are 30 times more likely (pdf) to arrest the survivor of domestic violence along with the perpetrator when the case involves a same-sex couple than when it involves a male perpetrator and female survivor. In some cases, LGBTQ hate crime victims have actually been arrested and charged with crimes for defending themselves. CeCe McDonald, a black transgender woman with a history of surviving physical and sexual assault, was the only person arrested after defending herself against a group of white men and women who were shouting racist and transphobic slurs as she walked by and then slashed her face with glass, unprovoked.

Disturbingly, LGBTQ and HIV-positive people of color who are survivors of violence are 2.4 times more likely than their white counterparts to experience police violence, according to a 2015 NCAVP study (pdf). Transgender people of color who are survivors of violence are 6.2 times more likely than their white counterparts to experience police violence.

LGBTQ communities of color also experience prejudicial profiling because of intersecting forms of racism, homophobia and transphobia. For example, Human Rights Watch found that transgender women in New Orleans are subject to constant harassment, verbal abuse and stops based on suspicion of prostitution. As an LGBTQ community member in New Orleans said, based on personal experience, “They are targeted because walking down the street while being young, black and transgender is considered a crime.”

The level and types of police mistreatment and violence that LGBTQ communities of color face warrant particular attention. That means both inserting LGBTQ experiences into national discussions about police violence and ensuring that police-reform initiatives are LGBTQ-inclusive—including anti-profiling laws that prohibit profiling on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, police-oversight commissions with the power to hold police accountable, and task forces for hate crimes and other forms of violence that disproportionately affect LGBTQ people of color. It is incumbent upon all of us to highlight and work to address the ways in which LGBTQ communities of color are both uniquely vulnerable to violence and experience a dangerous lack of institutional protection from it.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Laura E. Durso, Ph.D., is senior director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

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