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These cops want LGBTQ community to feel safer in Charleston

November 25, 2018

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — On a recent Sunday night, the blue lights atop K.J. Ivery’s police cruiser lit Charleston’s Ann Street.

Ivery scanned the street’s familiar sights. The officer knows this street well. For the past two decades, Ann Street has stood as a celebrated bastion of LGBTQ culture here. A safe place.

The street is home to Dudley’s, the city’s only self-billed gay bar that teems most weekends with patrons vying for entry as drag queens take the stage. During pride celebrations each September, it looks more like a block party than a bar.

But Ivery, the city’s first openly transgender police officer, fears that a sense of security and belonging on Ann Street and across Charleston is at risk. And he’s not alone.

“I’m trying to figure out what I can do to make it feel safer,” said Ivery, who sits on the Charleston Police Department’s LGBTQ liaison committee.

Recent events suggest that the committee has its work cut out.

In August, a transgender woman was violently assaulted in a parking garage on Ann Street. Surveillance footage showed a man winding up and throwing a punch at the woman’s face, knocking her out. Charleston police said the man hurled slurs at the woman about her gender identity before the attack that landed her in the hospital in serious condition. Investigators have arrested a suspect in the case.

In September, another man sent bricks flying through windows and doors at a downtown thrift store operated by We Are Family, South Carolina’s only resource center for LGBTQ youth.

“We think that it can’t happen here,” Ivery, 28, said. “Then it happened right here in our backyard. And the people who are usually able to sit in their own luxury were kind of forced to take a stand. Because your silence says a lot about you as well.”

When it comes to making inroads with any community, officer Terry Cherry put it like this: “It’s about getting to know the people one-on-one. I think building partnerships with a diverse group of people within the (LGBTQ) community would be excellent.”

Cherry, 37, also sits on the department’s LGBTQ liaison committee. She moved to Los Angeles from Boone, N.C., when she was 18 after meeting resistance when she came out as gay.

In 2012, she moved to Charleston to begin her career as a police officer.

“My community is made up of different socioeconomic classes, religions, races (and) genders,” she said.

If police are going to bridge the gap between law enforcement agencies and the LGBTQ community, Cherry said, it’s also going to require change from the inside out.

The LGBTQ liaison committee was a product of the Illumination Project, which launched in March 2016, several months after nine black worshippers were fatally shot during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church.

The project has included listening sessions and workshops about identifying racially biased law enforcement practices. The LGBTQ liaison committee and other special focus groups, both within the Police Department and beyond, were formed.

This particular committee leads internal efforts that help inform guidelines and practices that better serve the city’s LGBTQ-identifying population.

“The first tangible goal (for the committee) was ... education for police officers,” Cherry said. “That was a big one, and that’s what we did. And we executed that within weeks of the request.”

In the aftermath of the Ann Street assault, the liaison committee brought in Melissa Moore, who until recently ran We Are Family, to help with a 30-minute sensitivity training session for officers.

“I think the training on bias was a good start,” Moore said, “but that training was only 30 minutes. You certainly can’t understand everything you need to learn in 30 minutes.”

More recently, Charleston’s City Council voted on the first reading of a hate crime ordinance. If passed, the ordinance would criminalize intimidating any person on the basis of, among other possible factors, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Until this year, Charleston police had not reported a hate crime to the FBI since the Emanuel mass shooting in 2015, according to the most recent data. That year, the city also saw two other hate crimes: one motivated by racial bias and another because of the victim’s sexual orientation, the FBI data showed.

In the latest instance — the transgender woman’s attack on Ann Street — the incident was not publicly labeled a possible hate crime by law enforcement. A week later, a police spokesman said the woman “wasn’t assaulted because she’s a transgender.”

Then on Aug. 28, the department clarified that its follow-up investigation revealed the victim was indeed confronted about her gender identity just before the attack. The department already had that information before its first statement.

An incident report that was filed also did not specify a motive, nor did it mention the verbal confrontation before the attack. Officials revisited its portrayal of the crime amid mounting pressure from local LGBTQ advocacy groups.

After the department faced criticism, including for its references to the victim as “a transgender,” officials called a town hall meeting in early September.

“It’s entire communities that were offended by that choice of words,” Ivery said. “By patently characterizing something a certain way just because we didn’t have all the facts? That’s not how we usually operate. ... I think it showed how much work we have to do.”

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds and officers on the liaison committee told the packed September meeting that the department would double its efforts to better understand challenges faced by members of the LGBTQ community.

During the forum, Reynolds and others heard from those who said that they have feared for their safety and been accosted on city streets.

“In my mind, there should be no space between us. Zero,” Reynolds said. “We should be in this together. I know that’s not where we’re at today, but that’s where we need to be.”

Cherry sat on a panel to field questions. Ivery did not.

“I’m trying to choose my words very carefully, as well,” Ivery said in an interview. “I think that it was really unfortunate that the department put out those statements without having the full picture because it reflected poorly on a lot of the things we value. And a lot of the LGBTQ liaison group expressed our disappointment and worked really quickly to remedy a lot of those missteps.

“It’s frustrating to have to apologize for something that should have never happened,” Ivery added. “Because we’re better than that.”

As night fell on Ann Street in mid-October, Moore and about three dozen other members and allies of Charleston’s LGBTQ community marched and danced on downtown streets to the very spot in the parking garage where the transgender woman was attacked.

“Whose streets?” a man shouted through a megaphone.

“Our streets!” the crowd shot back.

Blocking traffic at times and recruiting passersby, participants waved handmade signs and cheered.

“The whole protest,” Moore said to the group before the rally, “is about reclaiming spaces where we’ve been harmed.”

After the demonstration, the crowd dispersed back toward Ann Street. Most of them met later at Dudley’s for drinks.

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Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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