Op-ed: Fixing The NYPD's LGBT Problem

By Amos Toh

Originally published on Advocate.com April 09 2013 5:00 AM ET

Acceptance of LGBT Americans may be at an all-time high, but the relationship between the New York Police Department and this community remain fraught.

On March 19, the City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, proposed establishing an inspector general for the NYPD. This could provide oversight of the nation’s biggest police department, a critical step in ensuring respect for the basic rights of thousands of the city’s LGBT inhabitants.

Recent studies show that gay men of color are particularly vulnerable to stop-and-frisk and other forms of police harassment and intimidation. Transgender women are routinely profiled for prostitution and other sex-related offenses, while queer youth are twice as likely as their straight counterparts to report negative contact with the police. Not long ago, the department also drew sharp criticism for entrapping dozens of gay men in public spaces.

To address concerns about these types of police interactions, Speaker Quinn, working with the NYPD, created the LGBT Advisory Panel. This group of community leaders considered the concerns of the LGBT community and recommended changes, some of which were incorporated into the NYPD Patrol Guide. The police were given long overdue guidance on how officers should address, process, search and house gender non-conforming individuals.

While this was a welcome step, LGBT groups and activists know there is still a long way to go. How will the revised guidelines be implemented and enforced? Who will assess how effective they have been and how they should be refined? The guide is also silent on one of the most criticized practices of the Department: the policy of using the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution.

The LGBT Advisory Panel does not have the resources to monitor compliance, and its mandate beyond making recommendations for changes to the Patrol Guide is unclear. Monitoring calls for an oversight structure that has the powers, resources and credibility to scrutinize aspects of the department’s work that affect the LGBT community, from the training of officers to practices on the ground.   

An inspector general can fill the void. Such an office is part of the oversight apparatus credited for rebuilding relations between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and LGBT communities. After years of difficulty, in 2008, the LAPD was praised for working closely with LGBT organizers to protect those protesting against a statewide initiative to ban gay marriage.

Los Angeles’s experience reveals that the systematic, ongoing review of police work is central to the implementation of meaningful reform. The role of the LAPD Inspector General transcends the investigation of individual misconduct. This office also oversees police practices that historically affect the LGBT community, such as street stops and arrest booking, and may also undertake special investigations directed by the Board of Police Commissioners (the civilian leadership body of the LAPD) or at the Inspector General’s own discretion.

An inspector general is well-positioned to investigate patterns of sexual discrimination and monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws. However, an inspector general cannot work in isolation. The support and cooperation of the Police Department and the City are also critical in ensuring that it operates effectively. LA’s Inspector General has forged strong working relationships with the LAPD leadership and city officials: His office provides detailed reports to the Board of Commissioners and the Chief of Police, and has received strong political endorsement from the Mayor.   

Under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, New York has positioned itself as “a leader on marriage equality” and the “freest city in the freest country in the world.” There is no other place, he has proclaimed, “more welcoming of all people, no matter what their ethnicity, no matter what their beliefs, no matter what their orientation.” These ideals must become a reality for LGBT New Yorkers in their interactions with the police. Independent civilian oversight will be a crucial step in improving relations between the NYPD and one of the biggest LGBT communities in the world. Speaker Quinn is to be lauded for supporting this important initiative.

AMOS TOH is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.