Activists meet to address growing tension between police and LGBT Texans
Representatives from Equality Texas and the American Civil Liberties Union met on July 13 to discuss strategies designed to promote better education and awareness among Texas law enforcement agencies-and raise awareness among the public as to their rights and responsibilities when interacting with those agencies. The meeting, held at the Austin offices of the ACLU, comes on the heels of two high-profile incidents which have further strained relations between police and LGBT Texans.
The Forth Worth Police Department and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission conducted an unusually aggressive raid at the Rainbow Lounge on June 28 (the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.) The action resulted in seven arrests and landed one patron in the hospital with serious head injuries.
On the other side of the state, a security guard at a Chico’s Tacos in El Paso who saw two men kissing forcibly removed a group of men on June 29. An officer called to the scene not only refused to assist the men, but threatened to cite them for "homosexual activity" on the grounds same-sex kissing was forbidden in public. The officer incorrectly cited the law, but a recent ACLU press release noted a further complication.
"Although a statute prohibiting homosexual sodomy remains on the books in Texas, it is no longer enforceable," the statement read. "The Supreme Court found the statute unconstitutional in a landmark 2003 decision, Lawrence vs. Texas, a case in which the ACLU and ACLU of Texas submitted a friend-of-the-court brief. The El Paso ordinance, which was adopted the same year the Lawrence decision was issued, specifically prohibits places of public accommodation - like restaurants, hotels, and other businesses - from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, color, religion, ethnic background, or national origin."
Since the June 28 and June 29 incidents, the El Paso Police Department has issued a press release in which Chief Greg Allen disavows the officer’s statements as "an incorrect recitation of the law." The release further promises to "require that all employees of the police department maintain a level of competence that keeps them abreast of the current laws and requirements of the law enforcement profession."
Several calls placed this week to EPPD spokesperson Chris Mears went unanswered. Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, meanwhile, has publicly apologized for how his city’s police officers’ conduct during the Rainbow Lounge raid. And Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead announced the appointment Sara Straten as an LGBT liaison officer earlier this week.
Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said she feels the appointment is a sign Fort Worth authorities are "headed in the right direction."
It makes for better policing, all around." Graybill notes "It’s critical for police departments to have the capacity and relationships to provide appropriate protection to all members of their community. Good and effective policing requires having a good relationship with the community, and diversity is a key component of how they can get there."
Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas, described the El Paso and Fort Worth incidents as indicative of the need for sensitivity and diversity training to "be incorporated into cadet training in addition to ongoing training for officers."
Austin, Houston and San Antonio are among the Texas cities that have already implemented diversity trainings with LGBT-specific content. Scott noted the Dallas Police Department’s program, for example, "enhances the relationship between the community and law enforcement."
"Without that positive outreach, you always have the possibility that an incident (like the ones in El Paso and Fort Worth) might happen," he said.
Scott added he and other participants in the July 13 meeting pointed to possible next steps. These include continued communication about any possible additional incidents to determine whether "this is a systemic problem with law enforcement." He also emphasizes the importance of what he described as educating law enforcement to "respond appropriately to any incident."
"When you get to smaller cities and townships, it’s important to include that in their training," Scott said.
Gray added she feels LGBT Texans themselves have a responsibility to know the law, what their rights are and how to appropriately interact with police.