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The new beat: the Washington Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit is transforming law enforcement and redefining the concept of "community" policing.

Earlier this year, Sgt. Brett Parson of the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had a problem most hiring managers in government would love to have: nearly 30 qualified and experienced police officers from within the MPD applied for two open spots in Parson's unit. From new recruits to long-time beat cops, these applicants were anxious to be a part of an exciting, unique unit that couples broad community outreach and education with traditional law enforcement and crime fighting.

What may come as a surprise is that Parson leads the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, or GLLU, a police beat with no precinct boundaries. The GLLU encompasses every race and demographic, from the vibrant gay club scene in the Nation's capital to the nameless, faceless world of the Internet where cybercrimes occur. It addresses the singular needs of the gay community--a traditionally underserved, somewhat invisible population that, despite its large size, is difficult to identify, count, and locate within geographic boundaries used in traditional community policing.

Police typically conceive of a community as geographic in nature. Even cultural and religious minority groups tend to have a centralized location where their concentrations are highest and their cultural existence is obvious to the average citizen. Police officers working in these units usually have a narrowly defined geographic beat and a very specific, identifiable constituency. But the gay community spans the greater society, and members of that community are not easily identified and, therefore, difficult to deliver specific and customized police services.

Just like the gay community, the GLLU is not limited by geographic boundaries. It goes where the constituents go. Created in 2000 in a city with one of the Nation's highest concentrations of gays, the unit has six full-time officers, plus a cadre of part-time officers and volunteers from the community. It moved two years ago into a spacious storefront "station" near trendy DuPont Circle; posters condemning hate crimes decorate its walls.

The GLLU is an attractive place for law enforcement officers (gay and straight, in MPD neighboring departments, and federal law enforcement) because of its reputation as a unit that does a whole new type of policing and gets fantastic results. By productively using community volunteers, officers are freed up for "police work," saving the department precious resources. According to one criminal justice expert, the GLLU "has become a place police officers want to be so they can do the kind of law enforcement that great police officers aspire to."

Crisis-Compelled Change

Historically, many gay people across the United States considered police departments a threat for raiding gathering places and employing unfairly selective arrest policies. The gay-rights movement is widely depicted as starting with riots over a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar. Fear and mistrust of the police has been prevalent in the gay community for a very long time, and for good reason.

In a report issued last year, Amnesty International found that abuse by urban police officers is widespread and commonplace in the gay community--with violations ranging from ignoring crimes, verbal harassment, and unfair targeting to beatings and even rape. A high profile incident in Washington, DC, is often cited as a major example of why the gay community lacks trust and confidence in the police.

The same event is also acknowledged as a catalyst for change. In this case, it was a crime by a police officer that outraged the entire DC community. In 1995, a federal grand jury indicted an MPD lieutenant--and close friend of the then-police chief--for blackmailing (known as "fairy shaking") men he believed to be living double lives: married and gay.

Recognizing the damage this did to the MPD's reputation, two lesbian officers proposed in 1999 that the local police could better serve the gay community by having a unique liaison unit. Their research, and personal experiences, revealed that officers were poorly prepared to interact effectively with members of the gay community. Their fellow officers received little formal training on the gay community's history, culture, and varied needs for police services.

And something else happened--around the same time--that catalyzed a "perfect storm" for the creation of the GLLU.

"Low" Crime Statistics?

To the untrained observer, a mere two hate crimes a year in a major city like Washington sounds good. But in 1998, Charles Ramsey, who was just taking over as MPD chief, saw this low number as bad news. Neighboring Maryland and Virginia had 282 and 160 hate crimes, respectively, reported that same year. Were the people of DC really getting along that well?

Ramsey didn't think so and, after some investigating, found that the low numbers of hate crimes reported in the District represented a major problem--not the absence of crime. He knew that the majority of hate crimes in the District were against members of the city's vast gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community and that the low number was the result of underreporting. Most experts estimate that the GLBT community represents 10 percent of the city's 575,000 residential population--in addition to countless daily workers and tourists. The number "T' was simply too low, and thus, the MPD's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit was born.

The new unit launched an internal educational campaign to teach all officers how to recognize, respond to, and report hate or bias crimes. The unit also educated the gay community on the importance of being forthcoming about the nature of the crimes committed against them. As a result, 50 more hate crimes were reported than in 1998. For the law enforcement community, that is real progress--not because of their occurrence, but because they were reported, a clear indication, according to Ramsey, "that gays and lesbians who've been victimized once know they will not be victimized again when they report the crime to us."

New Meaning for Community Policing

Cooperation and teamwork across departmental, jurisdictional, and geographic boundaries are the hallmarks of the GLLU and the reason for its success. Unlike most police community liaison units, this one actually performs a law enforcement function.

Although specialized police units with similar monikers are part of several big city police departments today, they are scarcely noticed by the public, often have a very small staff, and lack a holistic mission to exact positive change. To paint an overly simple picture, many other big city gay liaison units consist of one officer sitting at a desk that is not accessible to the public, primarily engaging in public relations activities that only serve the police department's interest in damage control and image. San Francisco, home to one of the Nation's largest gay communities, created a gay liaison police post back in the 1960s, but no longer sees a need for it. The department has scores of openly gay and lesbian officers, and the city's seven-member Police Commission includes a transgender woman.

But the DC program is much more than a bunch of gay cops. The GLLU regularly works with other police units to deal with crimes committed by and against the GLBT communities. "Every act of police work is an opportunity for outreach to citizens and to other officers," says Parson--a burly, openly gay sergeant who gave up a career as a pro hockey referee to pursue law enforcement and who commands the GLLU. "This is how we do community policing." Rather than wait for the gay community members to come to the police, the GLLU goes where gay people are--from dance clubs to churches, political meetings to support groups. In another innovation, volunteers help establish the unit's priorities and functions, educating officers about the culture of the community and its needs.

Through an intensive communications campaign, the GLLU has gained the community's trust. Brochures, posters, business cards, a state-of-the-art Web site, as well as favorable print and broadcast media attention, have made the GLLU a household name within the gay community and the community at large--including among the area's most prominent business, civic and religious leaders.

The unit benefits not only the target communities, but the department itself. Since its inception, the GLLU has trained street officers and their supervisors in the intricacies of policing within the gay community. Training focuses on proper terminology, gay culture, dynamics of same-gender relationships and domestic violence, hate and bias crime investigations, and HIV transmission prevention education. The results of the unit's "Gay 101" classes for police academy recruits, rookie officers, and seasoned cops are a better informed and prepared police department that provides more sensitive and professional service not just to the gay community, but the entire community.

Case Closed

In addition to its status as a desired place to work for both gay and straight officers, the GLLU has helped make the overall MPD a "talent destination" for openly gay law enforcement professionals. The unit helps recruit qualified gay candidates, and the openly gay members of the GLLU serve an unofficial role as confidants for other department employees.

Because of the GLLU's work, MPD officers are now better informed on Washington's gay community: its needs, vulnerabilities, and permanent place in local culture. Likewise, because of the unit's consistent outreach over the past six years, Washington's gay community now understands police priorities and responsibilities to protect gay citizens and to investigate crimes committed both against and by community members. Over time, these efforts have eroded the traditional "us versus them" mentality and forged ties of cooperation between the two communities.

The current case closure rate illustrates the GLLU's remarkable success: The chance of a murder being solved in the United States is about 70 percent. That percentage goes down to 55 to 60 percent if the murder occurs in Washington, DC. Since its inception, the GLLU has assisted in the investigation of several murders that involved members of the gay community as witnesses, victims, and suspects. In 2005, the closure rate of homicide cases in which the GLLU has participated as investigators is more than 95 percent.

The unit gets involved in 10 to 15 murder cases a year. In one case, an America Online executive was reported missing by his family, who did not know that he was gay. The man's friends and acquaintances in the gay community suspected foul play and provided tips that led to the arrest and conviction of a contractor who was doing renovation work for the victim.

The GLLU has also become a leader in a little-known but quickly emerging field of crime: same-gender domestic violence. Studies show that gay relation ships have the same likelihood of being violent as heterosexual relationships--and, as is often the case among heterosexuals; people in same-gender relationships seldom report domestic victimization. In 2000, the MPD did not investigate any cases of same-gender domestic violence. By August 2005, the GLLU had handled or assisted in the investigation of more than 300 cases of domestic violence.

Several changes the GLLU made facilitated this increase. MPD officers are now trained in the dynamics of same-gender relationships and to recognize indications that a couple might be involved in an intimate same-gender relationship. All DC police officers are provided with the GLLU's contact information and encouraged to seek the GLLU's assistance immediately. Victims are now assigned a GLLU member, who walks them through the often stressful and confusing criminal justice system. In the past two years, two victim advocates were permanently attached to the GLLU, specifically to assist victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

A Model to Follow

For reaching out to an underserved community and creating a model for community policing, the GLLU recently won an Innovations in American Government Award. This award, which carries a prize of $100,000, is sponsored by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and is administered in partnership with the Council for Excellence in Government.

Because the GLLU is a model for government's capacity to do good, and do it well, the $100,000 prize specifically supports dissemination to other jurisdictions. Parson can certainly put the money to good use. Since winning the award, requests for information about how to start a GLLU have coming in steadily, from across the country and around the world.

"It's no wonder that this unit has been approached by departments from Missoula to Atlanta, and from England to Australia for advice," says Gowher Rizvi, Director of Harvard's Ash Institute. "The Innovations Awards were designed to help publicize and disseminate outstanding programs like this one, which is the model for community policing."

Parson has consulted with the Atlanta Police Department, which created a gay liaison post in 2002, and with Arlington County, Virginia, which now has a five-member Gay and Lesbian Liaison Team. He also has advised Missoula's Sgt. Scott Oak, the first gay liaison officer in Montana. Fargo, North Dakota, created its liaison post last year after an openly gay sergeant, Greg Lemke, heard about Missoula. "I thought if they could do it, we could do it," Lemke told the Associated Press. He was surprised at how quickly his chief gave approval.

He shouldn't be. More than a dozen other police chiefs in cities large and small are also giving the go-ahead to establish similar units, and public-sector leaders at all levels of government are soliciting Parson's advice, not only on GLLU, gay, police, and diversity issues, but also on topics ranging from employee motivation, team building, and effective recruiting, for law enforcement and other public-service employment.

The ultimate goal--according to Parson--is for the GLLU to go out of business. But until then, the GLLU is rewriting the book on crime-fighting and, in its own unique way, illustrating the power of government to directly enhance the lives of citizens.

Carl A. Fillichio is a vice president of the Council for Excellence in Government (, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that works to improve government performance and citizen participation in government. To learn more about the GLLU, visit http://
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Author:Fillichio, Carl A.
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1U5DC
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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