Out For Justice
IN APRIL 2011, JONATHAN SIMCOX AND HIS partner Steven Ondo engaged in a lovers’ quarrel upon leaving a Cleveland, Ohio nightclub. The couple’s neighbor, an off-duty Cleveland police officer, confronted the couple, shouting, “Shut up, you`re disturbing the peace.” Simcox attempted to push past the officer.
The officer slammed him to the ground before unleashing blow after blow to Simcox’s body.
Within minutes, more Cleveland police officers arrived. The couple was arrested, only to be released without any charges. No more than a week later, the couple was awakened at their home by loud banging at the front door. Dressed in underwear, the couple answered, only to see Cleveland police officers. The police, again, arrested them. This time for assault on a peace officer.
Simcox asked the reason for their arrests and was answered by repeated punches to his face. Simcox’s brother asked police if he could get the couple pants and shoes. An officer responded, “You can get them shoes, but faggots don’t deserve to wear pants in jail.”
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. During his 2013 inaugural speech, President Barack Obama prompted national discourse about police misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) individuals by equating Stonewall to other historically significant, course-changing events in both the women’s and African American civil rights movements.
Police misconduct towards LGBTQ individuals is not a recent phenomenon.
Long before Stonewall, members of local police forces across the country routinely and systemically victimized LGBTQ individuals specifically because of their sexual orientation and/or perceived gender identities. In the 1960s, police frequently raided the few existing New York City gay and transgender social establishments. The Stonewall Inn was one of those clubs.
Many of the Stonewall’s patrons were society’s most ostracized: Black and Puerto Rican drag queens, transgender individuals, effeminate young men, “butch” lesbians, and homeless LGBTQ youth. On June 28, 1969, these societally marginalized members of the LGBTQ community gathered at the Stonewall Inn as undercover members of the NYPD Public Morals Squad canvassed the bar from within in order to collect evidence of “sexual deviance.” Ultimately, NYPD officers raided the bar and exacted a course of misconduct against many of the 200 bar patrons. For example, female police officers took customers into the bathroom in order to visually verify their biological sex. Male officers inappropriately groped lesbian patrons under the guise of “frisks.” That night set off a chain of immediate and long-lasting events that forever changed the trajectory of the LGBTQ rights movement.
In 2005, Amnesty International published a study that explored current issues of police misconduct against LGBTQ people. The study confirmed that LGBTQ individuals continue to be targeted by the police because of real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity and that young, low-income transgender people of color experience the most egregious police misconduct. Although statistics are scarce, experts agree that reported cases of police misconduct against LGBTQ individuals are only the tip of the iceberg. LGBTQ individuals are reluctant to, and often do not, report incidents of police mistreatment to law enforcement authorities. A 2009 Equality and Human Rights Commission study found that one in five LGBTQ people are unlikely to report a homophobic hate crime because they expect to be discriminated against by the police. According to Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted in 2011, almost fifty percent of the transgender and gender non-conforming study respondents reported discomfort with seeking police assistance. LGBTQ mistrust of law enforcement and other state agents, rooted in a history of anti-gay and -transsexual hate, is not misplaced. A 2005 study of Texas police officers substantiates the fear. According to the Sam Houston State University study, a majority of Texan police officers endorsed homophobic attitudes. Such attitudes are prevalent among police forces throughout the country.
Fear of discrimination is just one of many factors LGBTQ individuals consider when determining whether to report police misconduct. LGBTQ individuals fear that local police will retaliate against them by using violence or criminalization or both. Others do not report such incidents because of a fear that they will be “outted” or, in other words, that their sexual orientation or gender identity will be revealed, to their families, friends, neighbors, landlords, or employers. In order to address LGBTQ reluctance to file complaints with local police departments against local officers, Amnesty International calls for, amongst other things, independent police oversight agencies to perform outreach to LGBTQ communities.
There is an absence of civilian oversight outreach to the LGBTQ community. While numerous civilian oversight agencies have executed LGBTQ outreach, there are others that have not. This void presents a myriad of problems, including the propensity to perpetuate the belief commonly-held by LGBTQ individuals that no recourse for police misconduct is available to them. Civilian oversight agencies must not only reach out to, but also build trust among LGBTQ individuals in order to encourage them to report such instances of abuse. The outreach must be consistent and the oversight agency must maintain a presence within the community over a long period of time.
Like many LGBTQ individuals, Jonathan Simcox and Steven Ondo’s story begs a set of questions that need answers. What is the role of civilian oversight agencies in an anti-LGBTQ police culture? What can we do to promote civilian oversight visibility within LGBTQ communities? And, what should civilian oversight agencies do to encourage victimized members of the LGBTQ community to speak out?
It’s been over forty years since Stonewall. The time for action is long overdue.