2 Gay Officers Work For Acceptance On Force, In Community

August 03, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sgt. John Kowalczyk wasn't hiding his sexual orientation; he just wasn't broadcasting it. But word was spreading through the police academy, and he sensed tension.

He asked to address his fellow officers and got right to the point.

"I'm gay," he said. "What do you want to know?"

He answered questions for the next hour - some inquisitive, others downright insulting - and spent the rest of the training academy working to show his peers that he could hold his own as a cop.

Seven years later, Kowalczyk, 31, remains one of the few openly gay officers in the Baltimore Police Department. But along with Sgt. Jeffrey Chaney, 41, he has been assigned to work as a liaison to Baltimore's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, a job that includes fostering a better work environment within the department.

"We're trying to make it easier for other people in the department to come out, for people in the neighborhoods to feel safe," Kowalczyk said. "It's a mentality change and an operational change."

The need for the police department to have strong ties to the gay community has been highlighted by several high-profile incidents in recent months, including the slaying of a recently married lesbian couple in Northeast Baltimore, a fatal shooting outside a lesbian club and a series of attacks in Mount Vernon, a hub to the city's gay community.

Most recently, Chaney was called by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department when a gay D.C. Council aide disappeared in the Inner Harbor. He also fielded questions from gay media there when the aide's body was found.

Openly gay officers represent a small percentage of law enforcement officers nationwide, but an increasing number of police departments are creating gay and lesbian liaison positions to cooperate with the gay community. Baltimore's unit is the first in Maryland.

Anthony McCarthy, who was chairman of the city's now-defunct LGBT task force and hosts a weekly radio show, said that recent police commissioners have been responsive to the gay community, but that a "great deal of anxiety" remains about interactions with police in Baltimore.

"There are real concerns that when officers arrive on the scene, if they have to interact with someone who is openly gay or transgender, that the officers' attitude changes and the crime will not be pursued," he said. "I think the liaison unit could go a long way, but you have to change the culture."

In the District of Columbia, the Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit is seen as a model, the only one of its kind nationwide that performs community outreach but also traditional police investigative work. Lt. Brett Parson, a gay officer who worked in the unit for years and now supervises all of the department's liaison units, regularly fields calls from around the country from police departments looking to start similar initiatives.

"In an ideal world, we should not need specific officers or units to serve marginalized communities or communities feeling that they aren't getting services they desire," Parson said. "We don't live in that world, and until we're there, we need units like this."

In Baltimore, change has been slow.

Last week, the officers met with leadership in the Central District to ensure that they were notified when serious incidents occurred in areas frequented by members of the gay community or involving members of the gay community. But when a man was brutally beaten recently outside the Hippo, a well-known gay club, and was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma, the officers in the liaison unit did not find out about it until word started to spread through the gay community.

Chaney and Kowalczyk have put significant effort into overhauling the department's education and training curriculum related to gay issues, as well as general orders that govern hate crimes. In 2007, the last year data are available, Baltimore reported eight hate incidents, two of which were motivated by sexual orientation.

At the moment, the officers do this work as an additional responsibility to their full-time positions in the department. Chaney works in the Special Investigations Section, Kowalczyk as a neighborhood services officer in the Southern District.

They go to community meetings, pass out business cards and try to spread the word about the liaisons. A Web site is in the works, and they're hoping for sponsors to create fliers to hand out in the neighborhood. They have no budget - Chaney sports a self-produced polo shirt with the unit's name and a city police logo on the left breast - and protocols governing when the unit gets involved are evolving.

Parson believes that such units are most effective when they are involved with police work. He recalled when a homicide detective from a rural, Southern police agency called him for help in solving the killing of a transvestite - a "he/she," the detective called the victim.

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