Protecting all crime victims

Our view: Police Commissioner Batts is right to seek better relations with the city's LGBT community

July 20, 2014

City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts set an example for his fellow officers when he met recently with Baltimore's transgender community to discuss the murder of a 26-year-old transgender woman whose body was found in a Northwest Baltimore alley last week. The death of Mia Henderson on Wednesday, and the slaying last month of Kandy Hall, another transgender woman, sent shock waves through the LGBT community that have left many members fearful of being targeted by violence, yet reluctant to turn to police for help. Mr. Batts tried to assure them that his detectives are working hard on both cases and that the department is committed to bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Those were welcome words given that relations between the police department and the city's LGBT community have long been fraught by mistrust and misunderstanding. Advocates complain that too often police view transgender people as part of the problem rather than as victims of crimes. For example, a police spokesman suggested last week that prostitution may have been a factor in Ms. Henderson's death because she had two previous arrests on that charge and because she was killed in an area known as a rendezvous for drug users, prostitutes and johns attempting to buy sex.

Such suspicions on the part of officers undoubtedly have contributed to the contentious nature of the department's dealings with transgender people in Baltimore and elsewhere. Many transgender people feel that if their safety is threatened and they go to police for help they are as likely to be arrested as to be protected. For their part, police are more apt to see sex workers as criminals themselves rather than as citizens in need of their assistance.

Mr. Batts is trying to change a pattern of punitive interactions with transgender people that is deeply ingrained among police departments, and it won't happen overnight. Nevertheless, at bottom it comes down to persuading his officers to see transgender people as human beings with dignity and a life worth living rather than as expendable misfits and outcasts who don't deserve their protection. In an increasingly diverse society that has become more tolerant of all kinds of differences, that is something that cannot be stressed to often.

A life on the streets selling one's body is an inherently dangerous occupation by any standard. But the reality is that those who engage in it, including transgender women and men, do so largely because they feel they have no other alternative for making a living. Often they have been rejected by family and friends and suffer the severe social isolation experienced by people forced to live on the margins of society. Lack of education and discrimination by employers compound their problems supporting themselves. Those who turn to prostitution as a last resort represent only a tiny fraction of the overall transgender population, but too often police treat anyone whose gender identity doesn't fit the conventional mold as potential public safety threats.

Yet the fact is that transgender people are far more likely to be targets of violent attacks than to commit them. Moreover, violence against LGBT people tends to be especially brutal even when compared to other types of hate crimes. Such cases are more likely to involve torture, strangulation, mutilation or disfigurement rather than simple murder, which may reflect the intense rage felt by perpetrators who are acting out their own psychological conflicts that spring from being simultaneously attracted and repelled by the transgender victim's sexuality.

Mr. Batts has made a good start toward demonstrating that he understands these issues and the fears they provoke in Baltimore's LGBT community. But the proof will lie in what the department does to back up his words in a way that makes transgender people believe they can trust the police to protect them. Finding and bringing to justice the murderers of Ms. Henderson and Ms. Hall would go a long way toward building the kind of confidence in the department communities throughout the city will need to have in order to truly be partners with police in the fight against crime.

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