Austin Police Try to Get Beyond Trans Misgendering and “Deadnaming”

A few law enforcement agencies have adopted new guidelines to treat trans and gender-nonconforming people more fairly. But it’s just the first step.
Transgender-Rights.jpg

Police and media frequently misidentify transgender victims of violence, contributing to the erasure of trans peoples’ lives. When an officer misgenders and deadnames a victim, they are disregarding and denying that trans person’s identity, advocates say.

Photo by Samuel Kubani / Stringer / Getty Images. 

By all accounts, Monica Loera was a warm and friendly soul—the sort who loved to cook and make you laugh. She was kind and made her friends feel safe and cared for.

She was kind and made her friends feel safe and cared for.

A 29-year-old gunman fatally shot Loera in front of her Austin, Texas, home on Jan. 22, 2016, in the early morning. She was the first transgender person killed in 2016, which has been recorded by advocates as the deadliest year for the U.S. trans population. But Leora’s friends—the ones who described her as “sweet” and “vivacious” in accounts to local media—wouldn’t know about her murder until a week later. That’s because Loera, who was a 43-year-old transgender Latina, was first misgendered and referred to by her name given at birth—known as deadnaming—by the Austin Police Department and in local news reports.

What happened to Loera is not an exception, though. Police and media frequently misidentify transgender victims of violence, contributing to the erasure of trans peoples’ lives. When an officer misgenders and deadnames a victim, they are disregarding and denying that trans person’s identity, advocates say. They are also distorting statistics, which makes it far more difficult to parse the number of transgender murder victims. That, advocates say, is not only harmful to the person who died and their loved ones, but also to the broader transgender community.

When an officer misgenders and deadnames a victim, they are disregarding and denying that trans person’s identity.

“People get written about in a way that misrepresents their gender [and] that undermines their dignity [and] demeans them,” said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality. “That can have a real impact on their day in court, on their credibility as a victim or a witness.”

In response to the handling of Loera’s case, Austin City Council ordered APD to reevaluate its treatment of transgender and gender-nonconforming residents, and convened a committee to develop recommendations for policy reform.

As part of this reform, APD will begin to use a victim-neutral affidavit, require documentation of a victim’s chosen name and correct gender identity on police reports, and adopt GLAAD’s media guide on fair and accurate coverage of the transgender population, said Sgt. Michael Crumrine, president of the Lesbian and Gay Peace Officers Association.

Changes to how transgender people are written about in police reports and other documents are vital to showing “respect for transgender people’s dignity and privacy,” Tobin said.

And, per the committee’s recommendation, the 2,000-person police department will also attend up to four months of policy and cultural competency training. The goal is to ensure APD employees understand the new guidelines, as well as how to communicate and interact with trans people equally, fairly, and respectfully, said Crumrine.

While APD began to adopt some of those changes this spring, its major undertaking will be a months-long training session starting next month.

“One of the biggest things to change [is] the culture,” said trans activist Paula Buls, who helped shape the department’s new policies. “Among the rank-and-file officers, there’s not always a commitment in going that extra mile that trans people are dealt with fairly.”

There’s not always a commitment in going that extra mile that trans people are dealt with fairly.

The session will be in-person in order to facilitate open dialogue and face cultural biases head on, Crumrine said. Department personnel will be able to interact with trainers directly and run through scenarios, among other activities, he said.

But before the training can kick off, community stakeholders will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the curriculum, he said. Buls will be among the trans activists who will review APD’s training materials and participate in a preview session to make sure “we’re not missing anything important,” she noted.

Austin PD is among a few U.S. law enforcement agencies that have adopted new guidelines in an effort to ensure respectful treatment of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Lisa Scheps, founder and interim executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said that APD’s interactions with trans folks have improved over the past decade. But, despite that progress, “we have a lot of work to do with regard to educating first responders,” said Scheps, whose organization also served on the committee.

Specifically, she added, APD officers need to understand “that the people they interact with are afraid of them to begin with.”

In numbers, that translates to 57 percent of transgender people who are uncomfortable asking for police assistance, reported the NCTE’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. That’s a significant increase from the results of the 2011 survey, conducted jointly between NCTE and National LGBTQ Task Force, which found that 46 percent of trans folks were uncomfortable asking police for assistance.

The 2015 NCTE survey also reported that more than half—or 58 percent—of transgender respondents experienced some form of mistreatment by police. That includes misgendering, verbal abuse, physical violence, and sexual assault. Transgender people who are Black, American Indian, and Latinx—particularly trans women like Loera—represent the majority of victims of police harassment and violence, according to the survey report.

“It’s become very clear that transgender people are disproportionately harmed by the problems we have with policing in this country,” Tobin said. “And those are not just problems of policy or [police] misconduct, but they’re problems of culture and accountability.”

They’re problems of culture and accountability.

Trans advocates recognize that policy reform is the first step forward in improving how transgender people are treated by police. But, they noted, the measurable success of those updated guidelines will depend on a number of tangible factors.

Effective training, ongoing education and awareness, and a strong accountability mechanism will all determine whether or not those policies are implemented properly, advocates say.

“We can write policy all day long, but unless people are following through with the policy, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” said Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, which also helped develop the four recommendations. “OK, we’re going to treat everybody fairly, but what does that mean?”

More so, if police continue to engage in racist and transphobic behaviors without consequences, “the written policy about how to treat trans people is pretty useless,” said Flor Bermudez, director of the Transgender Law Center’s Detention Project.

APD policy manual already requires officers to treat everyone with “dignity and respect.”

According to Crumrine, the current APD policy manual already requires officers to treat everyone with “dignity and respect.” If a responding officer neglects or refuses to follow the new policy—such as recording a person’s chosen name, and correct gender identity and pronouns—they would be in breach of existing guidelines, he said. The proposed policy reforms would go beyond the existing policy to specifically address issues unique to the transgender and gender-nonconforming populations, as well as update current procedures to be explicitly inclusive of them.

But that accountability mechanism won’t only exist within the police department, Buls said. In March, the city of Austin launched its first LGBTQ Quality of Life Advisory Commission to address the challenges facing transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual residents. The new commission, of which Buls is a member, will collaborate with Crumrine and the Lesbian & Gay Peace Officers Association to “really work toward changing some of those issues,” including mistreatment by police, Buls said.

Local trans activists believe that, with their guidance and oversight, APD will be able to make meaningful strides in improving the relationship between the city’s transgender population and police. The changes won’t happen overnight, of course; Buls knows it will be a long process to shift department culture.

“[But] if I didn’t think we could, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she said.

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism, consider subscribing to YES! today.