It’s easy for police officers to become defensive when asked about the rules governing their interactions with members of the public. That’s exactly the tack John Rogers took. He’s the director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains all law-enforcement officers at the local, county, and state levels in Maine, and when contacted by Out In Maine, was adamant that his organization trains officers to interact with transgender individuals exactly as they do with all other people.
“We train people to treat everybody the way they would like to be treated . . . Everybody should be treated equally.” He refused to even consider the idea that there should be any policies or guidelines for handling any individuals differently or ensuring that a group’s concerns be addressed. “It doesn’t matter to us.”
But another statement he made suggested he might, in fact, be in need of sensitivity training, even if he doesn’t know it: “I’m 57 years old and I don’t know if I’ve ever even seen a transgender person.”
That’s exactly the reasoning behind the Boston Police Department’s transgender policy, which took effect in June after years of development, research, and legal review.
“It’s trying to educate officers,” says Javier Pagan, a BPD office who also serves as his department’s liaison with the city’s LGBT communities. While all officers and policies strive to be respectful of individuals and their rights, it’s not safe to assume that everyone knows what respect looks like to certain people.
For example, Pagan says, the BPD has a policy about dealing with prisoners — with rules that apply to all interactions with people in police custody. But that policy also has a subsection about dealing with female prisoners, and another about juvenile prisoners, to ensure that the specific concerns of women and children — who represent a smaller population within the criminal-justice system — are considered and addressed by police.
Along the same lines, the BPD policy on transgender people acknowledges that some Boston officers might have fewer opportunities to interact with this demographic (while others might have many more, depending on where in the city they work).
The policy codifies things like what name to use for a transgender person, if their legal name differs from the one they use in daily life. Similarly, it specifies that officers should use the pronouns that refer to the person’s self-expressed gender identity, and even goes so far as to allow for ambiguity: “If officers are uncertain about which pronouns are appropriate, then officers will respectfully ask the individual.”
These practices are, of course, common sense, and even second nature, within the LGBT and allied communities, but not in law enforcement — yet.
“It’s not easy to change a culture,” says Pagan. As society changes, and as laws change, Pagan notes, it’s important for police practices to keep up. He notes that these practices and policies also protect police officers and agencies against claims of discrimination or prejudice.
Still early for Maine
Most Maine police departments have yet to even look toward making changes to promote transgender sensitivity. As Maine police academy head Rogers made clear, new officers are not taught anything specific about transgender issues and individuals.
The Maine State Police does not have a policy either in force or even in development, according to spokesman Steve McCausland.
The Maine Chiefs of Police Association, which develops model policies often adopted verbatim across the state, has no such policy regarding transgender people, according to Robert Schwartz, the group’s executive director and a former South Portland police chief.
“I would not be surprised if at some point we were to develop a model policy . . . but nothing has brought it to the forefront” to date, Schwartz says.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says that while his agency lacks a written policy along the lines of Boston’s, “The rule has always been, if you refer to yourself as a male or a female, then that’s what we do in response.” He notes that the department does have an LGBT community liaison, Officer Alissa Poisson, and recognizes that “the city of Portland is an incredibly diverse place.”
Ian Grady, a spokesman for EqualityMaine, says the city’s inclusive and sensitive practices are “a great role model for other towns and cities in Maine,” and says the LGBT-rights group hasn’t heard of any problems arising in Maine law enforcement.
Starting in corrections
A more significant concern than on-the-street police encounters with transgender people is raised by Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, who notes that while officers on patrol may have to question or search transgender people, bigger challenges arise when incarcerating them.
At the Penobscot County Jail, “it’s a policy that is developing.” Transgender inmates are not common there, but they do arrive from time to time. “We involve our medical department early on and appoint appropriate-sex officers to do pat-down searches,” Ross says, noting that it may involve two different officers patting down different areas of an inmate’s body.
“Not all of the rules are clearly defined,” Ross notes. Litigation still occurs, and much has not yet been decided either by policy or in court.
Where to house an inmate is determined in part by the medical staff, who may evaluate a person’s progress through a transition between genders, but also includes considering the gender self-identification of the inmate in question.
Ross’s staff works from a policy developed in Cumberland County, which has been in effect since 2009, according to Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce. Departments as far afield as Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco have used the county’s policy as a starting point for their own work.
Cumberland County’s policy includes an evaluation of an individual’s case by medical and security staff, who determine whether a transgender person will be housed with men or with women.
“We really pay particular attention to how they identify,” Joyce says. “It’s trying to balance the rights of the individual and the rights of the individuals they might be in a pod with.” While at any given time almost all inmates are in some need of mental-health care, Joyce’s policy also dictates transgender inmates’ access to medications and other treatments: The jail will provide those only if the person began those procedures before being incarcerated. If they decide to start a transition after arriving at the jail, the policy is to make the person wait until release to continue.
Joyce says some of his staff were reluctant or unconvinced at first, and needed training before being comfortable dealing with transgender inmates, but he knows it’s an important step. Observing that transgender people are a vulnerable population even before encountering police, he says, “We want to not make things worse.”
He says issues of transgender rights are ”becoming more and more prevalent” — recently Time magazine called him to talk about the situation with incarcerating Chelsea Manning, the male-to-female transgender person who, as US Army Private Bradley Manning, was convicted of releasing classified documents to the public. “You can’t duck it,” he says. So the question becomes, “How can you make it as respectable and responsible as possible and respect security and everybody’s rights?”
Promising learning opportunities
There’s a very good starting point to answering that question, which has been developed right here in Maine, though it’s available to police officers nationwide.
It’s an online training class for law-enforcement officers entitled “Awareness of Transgender Issues,” and it was put together by one of Maine’s top cops: Noel March, the US Marshal for the District of Maine. He’s a former Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy and former UMaine-Orono police chief who developed the online course while earning his master of arts degree in peace and reconciliation from UMaine.
“Hate crimes has been at the forefront of my interest for many years,” March says. He’s also a family friend of the Maineses, the state’s — possibly even the country’s — best-known family with a transgender member. They’ve been highlighted in reporting in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
When considering what he could contribute to the law-enforcement community during his studies, he thought about training possibilities. (Like many certified professionals, police officers have to do a certain amount of continuing education to keep their certifications current.) “I found that there was nothing relating to people who identified as transgender as victims, or witnesses, or complainants, or as coworkers,” March says.
In collaboration with Wayne Maines and a Maine-based security-training company led by Paul Plaisted, March put together the 40-minute course, even narrating it himself. “It really educated me,” he admits.
“Many members of the transgender community lack the comfort to interact with law enforcement,” March says, often because of issues not shared by gay, lesbian, or bisexual people. For example, if a driver is stopped for speeding, their driver’s license may show a different name, gender, and appearance than the person behind the wheel exhibits.
March says officers should do their jobs, determining the correct identity of the person in question, but shouldn’t “be so narrow-minded as to think that this person is someone who’s wearing a disguise. This may be a genuine case of someone in a transition.”
The online course covers basics of transgender terminology and etiquette as well as more specific issues of recognizing the potential for transgender people to be targets of violence, and working to protect them. It makes regular reminders of police officers’ sense of justice, equality, fair play, and duty to help people in need or in danger.
And that’s what March sees in his efforts to encourage police to improve their sensitivity to transgender people: “We need to understand the people who we encounter in our role as police officers.”