Op-ed: Texas Police Chief Goes From Hatred to Hero

The documentary filmmaker who followed the saga of the Rainbow Lounge raid in Texas three years ago says one of the story’s villains has changed.

BY Robert L. Camina

June 28 2012 7:52 PM ET

Texas Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead

Much has been said recently about President Obama's "evolving" opinion on LGBT equality. It’s also important to commend our local public officials who have "evolved" in their treatment of the LGBT community. A prime example is Fort Worth, Texas, police chief Jeffrey Halstead.

As many people know, on June 28, 1969, New York City police raided a popular gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, resulting in multiple arrests, injuries and riots. The Stonewall rebellion is commonly observed as the launch of the modern gay rights movement. Many people thought that gay bar raids like that existed only in the history books. Exactly 40 years later, however, unsuspecting customers in a Texas gay bar were about to learn otherwise.

Three years ago this week, on June 28, 2009, police and agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raided the Rainbow Lounge, a newly opened gay bar in Fort Worth. During their 40 minutes in the bar, multiple people were detained or arrested and a young man was sent to the ICU with a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain.

When allegations of police brutality flooded the Internet, police claimed that during the raid multiple patrons grabbed them in a sexually interested manner and "pretended to have sex with them from behind." They accused one patron in particular of grabbing a male officer's crotch. Even though patrons were injured, Halstead defended his officers' actions. He made public remarks that many considered homophobic. He was even accused of using the "gay panic" defense.

But with time, Chief Halstead and the LGBT community moved past those remarks and worked together to build a more inclusive city. In the aftermath of the incredibly controversial raid, Chief Halstead changed the department’s flawed bar check policy, appointed an LGBT police liaison and joined the Mayor’s Diversity Task Force. This group of leaders advised the mayor on issues related to the LGBT community. Just a few months after its formation, the Task Force made 21 bold recommendations to the Fort Worth City Council. Most of the recommendations were approved, including domestic-partner benefits and diversity training for the city’s nearly 6,000 city employees (including police and firefighters). Halstead also wrote a letter to all recruits encouraging a diverse police force.

People have taken notice of his transition, especially with the release of my documentary Raid of the Rainbow Lounge. Chief Halstead is one of the many people interviewed in this comprehensive look at the raid and its aftermath.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldana invited Chief Halstead and me to present at the first-ever LGBT Pride Month Diversity Program for her office and to show highlights from the film. The presentation was broadcast to her offices in Dallas, Fort Worth, Amarillo, and Lubbock, where attorneys and other staff learned about the raid and issues related to LGBT equality. The story’s reach is not limited to Texas. The White House and the Department of Justice have even requested screeners of the film.

Unfortunately, all you have to do is read the daily headlines to see that clashes between law enforcement and LGBT communities continue across the country. Chief Halstead offered this advice to leaders in other cities: “Your June 28, 2009, is going to come your way at some point. I only hope and pray that you have community leaders that have the courage to stand up and demand action. I also pray that you have a police department that is open and willing to listen, because I have seen other departments that are extremely negative and closed-minded and they refuse to listen, and that’s horrible. I really, really hope during that time, you have a way to learn.”

Chief Halstead was the target of a lot of criticism and hatred after making the incredibly offensive and nearsighted remarks after the raid. He is an educated man but knew very little about the LGBT community. He has a master’s degree but had no idea what Stonewall was or knowledge of the movement it initiated. Through a willingness to learn and courage to take action, Halstead helped make Fort Worth a leader in LGBT equality. In the dark days following the raid, no one would have thought that this man, who had once defended his officers’ aggressive actions and their absurd allegations that they had been groped and sexually assaulted, would be sitting on a White House panel supporting the LGBT community. But in March, that’s exactly what happened (at the White House LGBT Conference for Safe Schools and Communities). Chief Halstead owned his flaws and went from a target of hate speech and death threats to a respected, outspoken advocate for LGBT equality and a hero to many. That's progress, and isn't that what we are striving for?

 

ROBERT L. CAMINA is the writer-director of the documentary Raid of the Rainbow Lounge, a 103-minute film recounting the traumatic 2009 police raid of the Fort Worth gay bar and its aftermath. It is narrated by Meredith Baxter (Family Ties, Family). Chief Halstead and representatives from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission will answer questions in an unprecedented panel discussion in Dallas today — the three-year anniversary of the raid. The film is also playing film festivals across the country. Visit RaidoftheRainbowLounge.com for more information.

For images from the documentary, see the following pages.

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