It’s called “walking while trans,” the fear transgender women have that a cop will mistake them for prostitutes while they’re out at night.
It does happen, suggests a new Department of Justice training video, that educates police on interacting with the transgender community, a relationship known to be fraught with distrust.
Justice officials hope the video will help strengthen that relationship, creating safer encounters between the two.
“Just being transgender isn’t a reason to suspect a crime,” says the video’s narrator, Sgt. Brett Parson, a longtime liaison between the gay community and the Washington, D.C., police department.
“So as you can see, there’s an enormous need to repair this trust.”
Numbers are difficult to nail down, but an estimated 700,000 U.S. residents are transgender. One in four report they have been the victim of an assault because of who they are, Parson says in the video.
But, “there’s a perception among many transgender people that the police won’t take crime against them seriously, that they’ll actually blame the victim for looking or dressing or being the way they are,” he says.
Five years ago, in the largest survey of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States, 46 percent said they were “uncomfortable” seeking help from police.
The February 2011 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force also revealed that 22 percent of those who had interacted with police reported being harassed because of bias.
The 12-minute DOJ video addresses that head-on. In the first of three scenarios showing the most common ways police officers encounter members of the transgender community, a police officer pulls over a motorist for having a burned-out taillight.
The driver is a transgender woman.
“Do you prefer if I call you ma’am or sir?” the officer asks politely during the encounter.
At the end of the clip, Parson comes back on-screen and directly addresses those watching.
“Hey, I don’t have to be in the room to know what just happened. Somebody just snickered, laughed or made a joke,” he says.
“Trust me, I know, I’m a cop, too. As police officers, we use humor to deal with things that make us uncomfortable or afraid. We’re human and we know we mean no harm. It’s our way of coping. But we have to admit it: To outsiders, it’s perceived as unprofessional and disrespectful.
“Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. If someone feels disrespected, they’re less likely to trust us or cooperate.”
Many transgender people view law enforcement as a “non-ally,” Debbie McMillan from The Women’s Collective in Washington, D.C., says in the video. The nonprofit provides support and services to women living with HIV/AIDs.
“There’s just not trust in law enforcement and that’s due to past treatments of us as a community,” she says.
“I think the police need to have an understanding of what it means to be transgender. Having an understanding that I am not just a man with a wig on. We’re human. We’re just like everybody else.
“I think if police can understand that, that we’re no different, a wall would be removed, a barrier would be removed toward better communication and better relationships.”