When Ann Geddes called 911 for help with a teenage relative suffering a medical emergency, she worried that she would have to waste precious minutes explaining to officers his struggles with trans- gender issues.
To her surprise, Howard County police quickly responded without shock or confusion over the teenager's sexual orientation.
The county's gay residents and their supporters, such as Geddes, hope that officers' brief diversity training is changing a male-dominated profession that they say historically has lacked empathy for - and in some cases sanctioned humiliation of - homosexuals.
During Police Chief Wayne Livesay's first meeting this week with the county's chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the group called on the department to place more emphasis on the handling of same-sex domestic violence, homophobia-driven hate crimes and sensitivity in his workplace.
Livesay was asked to speak before the PFLAG group after 15-year officer Susan Ensko filed a federal lawsuit in October alleging harassment in the department's male "locker-room" environment and that a supervisor had made disparaging remarks about gays. The department intends to fight the lawsuit in court.
An awareness of gay men and lesbians' vulnerabilities - in the criminal justice field and in society - is only beginning to take hold among the nation's urban police departments. Gays often risk family rejection and job loss if they are "outed" by filing charges against a partner or lodging a complaint against police.
"Howard is way ahead of the curve on sensitivity training," said Geddes, of Columbia, but she also wants officers to have a deeper understanding of the "grayness" of gender - that sometimes it is not as simple as treating a man as a man or a woman as a woman.
The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington is pioneering efforts to move the handling of these cases into the mainstream and to protect gays and lesbians from retaliation. It is the only department in the country with a unit focusing on gays. Two of the four members of the unit attended Tuesday's PFLAG meeting at Owen Brown Interfaith Center.
During the question-and-answer session with the 50-mem- ber audience, Livesay offered to give gay men and lesbians a point of contact in the department and asked the group to print key police phone numbers in its next newsletter. A PFLAG member also suggested adding resources for gay men and lesbians to the department's victim-assistance brochures, especially in the area of domestic violence.
Livesay reported that during 2003 and 2004, the department received three reports of hate-bias incidents involving a gay man or lesbian, all of which involved name-calling, which did not rise to the level of a hate crime. Since 1998, community members have not filed any complaints against a police officer alleging misconduct based on sexual orientation, records show.
The chief said the small workload does not justify having an officer assigned solely to issues concerning gay men and lesbians, but he agreed that many hate-bias incidents and crimes go unreported.
Joe Morquecho of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit said that since his squad's work began in 1999, the number of gay-related hate crimes recorded annually has risen from two to 44.
"Urban centers have always had a problem with this, and we still do," Morquecho said. "But now people feel more comfortable reporting the crime because they know there are officers out there who understand their situation."
Livesay said that officers who are homosexuals are not required to tell supervisors they are gay, but that if they do they are not punished or treated differently. The department, like many others in the region, is struggling to recruit people - especially minorities and women, who make up 30 percent of Howard County's force, Livesay said.
Steve Charing, a member of PFLAG's steering committee, said the chief's presence was an important symbol of his commitment to diversity and the first step toward building a relationship between PFLAG and police officers.
"My guess is that most officers' interaction with the gay community in Howard County is limited to domestic disputes," Charing said. "There aren't a lot of areas where gays congregate in the suburbs - unlike cities, where bars make us better targets. Luckily, we're very dispersed in a relatively tolerant county."