by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The Seattle Police Department is about to host something very profound. On April 27-28, with the SPD LGBTQ Liaison Officer Jim Ritter at its helm, the department with host hundreds of law enforcement leaders and Department of Justice folks for a two-day conference to address hate crimes in our communities. Never before has anything like this been done. Who knows why or why not - and frankly - who cares. The point is it is happening and it is happening here because Ritter and SPD leadership, from Chief Kathleen O'Toole on down, recognized that bias crimes were on the rise last year and that was not okay. Other cities and jurisdictions will also share similar stories I'm sure. So what better way to attack the problem than by getting leaders, lessons-learned, and powerful anti-violence advocates together for a weekend with the goal of working to eliminate this sickness, as best as we can, on our streets and in our neighborhoods.
At first, Ritter, who I work closely with in the community in response to crimes against people and anti-LGBTQ bias crimes, envisioned the conference being for law enforcement only. And there is a reason, although jump to any conclusions, because it might not be the one that is right just yet. The reason is really because the nature of some of the crimes that will be discussed and looked at as case studies could be traumatic for people to hear about - let alone view the evidence and photos and maybe even video of gnarly death scenes.
The 'Understanding, Investigating and Responding to Hate Crimes Conference' will bring family members of people who were brutally murdered from our community.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mother and father, will attend and speak at the conference, and so will the law enforcement officials who worked on the investigation of what happened to Shepard before he was found, in 1998, hanging on to life, in a coma, beaten beyond recognition, tied to a fence post in Laramie, Wyoming.
Also in attendance, crime scene photos and all, will be guest speakers Jasper County Texas Sheriff Billy Rowles (Ret.) and Jasper County Prosecutor Guy James Gray (Ret.) who worked on the James Byrd case.
For those readers that do not recall, James Byrd was an African-American who was murdered in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998 by three men, of whom at least two were white supremacists. Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King dragged Byrd for three miles behind a pick-up truck along an asphalt road. Byrd, who remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal, was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American cemetery in Jasper. Byrd's lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate crimes law.
Both events later led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, which was passed in Congress on October 22, 2009, and which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.
Heavy stuff. Additionally, this is a conference where presenters will present about an area of expertise that they specialize in. It is designed to be an information sharing and idea sharing conference. This way it is productive and not interrupted every five minutes by someone with a sign reminding us that not all police are good people or some other useless thing that stops conversation and changes nothing.
Conference to be open to the public
But SPD is a different department than it was even just a few years ago. O'Toole and the leadership team she has put together are making a difference. And Ritter, who recently launched the much praised project SPD SAFE PLACE program, and who also testified before the Washington Senate in Olympia, in uniform, and on behalf of the Transgender community, is one of the fairest and least executive types I've ever known. This past Monday and Tuesday Ritter and I were guest speakers at the 'No Victim Left Behind Conference' at the University of California, Davis because of the community policing we both engage in, and he discussed with me the possibility of opening up enrollment to the hate crimes conference in Seattle. We both agreed that although some of the content will be tough to look at and process for some, it is always better to educate the public and operate in transparency; and so now, you get to decide if this conference is something you or your organization would like to attend. The price is $75 per enrollment and you can sign up for that at www.spdhatecrimesconference.eventbrite.com.
While the campus - and in particular the campus police - at UC Davis is sometimes embattled in what seems like alternate universes from each other due to a pepper spray incident four years ago, the 'No Victim Left Behind Conference' was not impacted by any of that. While we were there I got the feeling, as did Ritter, that the police chief and school leadership want to be closer to their LGBTQ students and population earnestly. However, they just did not know where to begin. We spoke on the last day of the conference and talked about the SPD SAFE PLACE program and I talked about the importance of building a strong partnership with community groups the department can trust in tandem with whatever other efforts of outreach are deployed to include LGBTQ people in all things public safety and so on in their respective cities and towns. Needless to say we made an impact, but to what end and what extent we really didn't not know. Wednesday night, Ritter and I received an email from the Chief of Police at Davis who said, 'Because of your presentations one of my police officers came to us today and asked to be assigned as the liaison officer to our LGBTQIA community. She has always been very open about who she is, but both of you presenting inspired her and provided her the confidence to seek this assignment.'
'I am at a loss for words and thank you is surely not enough. It has been such a fight these last four years,' said the Chief. 'This is a huge step. She will be our first ever liaison officer to our LGBTQIA community. Ever.'
Now that is progress in the right direction.
Looking to the past to move forward
While our movement towards full equality as LGBTQ people takes two steps forward and one step back, I can say that there is little more that I am routinely impressed with above the changing attitude (in both directions) towards the police in our city. Full disclosure, aside from my duties at the Seattle Gay News some of you might recognize me more easily if I hold a bull horn in my hand: Like many editors before me at the paper, I double as an activist, and a very public one at that. I can tell you that when I founded Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) in July of 2012, working with the Seattle Police Department did not seem like anything even remotely possible. The attitude amongst nearly all of my peers, the young adults who would take on the awesome responsibility of helping to pass marriage equality by popular vote (the very green and newly politicized SOSea founding board of directors), and the community elders pretty much all had the same feelings about the cops. Simply put it was classic 'us' and 'them' to the max.
But then bias or hate crimes started to happen a little more frequently than before. And they were hitting home. In the first six months of running as an organization, five out of the nearly fifteen founding board members (all very different in size, height, fighting ability, ethnicity, etc.) had been attacked. Four out of the five had been called, right from the start of the attack or carjacking (yes, that happened as well) a faggot. Only one did not get the benefit of hearing an anti-Gay epitaph, but it was no consolation prize I assure you because this man, who is literally built like a football player and teaches kindergarten was actually hit from behind and woke up face down in a puddle of rain water without his phone, house keys or wallet. Instead, he was left with a headache and a story. Yet only one out of the five original board members had bothered to make a police report.
Now let's think about that for a moment. Five educated, young LGBTQ people who had an immediate support group, each one also had family members that live near, felt that the police would do nothing, they would not get their property back, and that the cops don't like queers anyway. Life though, isn't always as we see it to be, right? I mean, I hope as you read this you think back to a moment where someone or something was not who or what you thought them to be. I am not, in any way going to tell you that the police are angels. I am no fool. But what I can tell you is that in nearly all of those incidents (including the carjacking and wallet mugging) the victim received their property as it had been recovered by SPD, the officers were friendly, and when all was said and done, we, the governing board of the social justice organization, realized we had to have a conversation about what we thought or had thought, and what had actually taken place. So, in December of 2012 I began to attend every single LGBTQ Advisory Council meetings to SPD and I haven't missed one since. Late last month I was elected, unanimously, chair of the advisory council.
I am not bragging. I am not boasting. What I am doing is setting up the background for you so you might understand how so many of the changes we see today in the department went down. The only answer I can give you without hesitation is hard work between people who give a damn. In my time of working with SPD, at first at an arm's length because neither I, nor them, knew if we could really trust each other. Later on, of course, all that has changed. I enjoy a true working relationship with SPD and their transparency whenever dealing with anything - good or bad - is unparalleled by any other City of Seattle department by a long shot.
Now, at the upcoming SPD National Hate Crimes Conference, law enforcement from around the nation and Department of Justice folks will discuss the crime, the investigation and lessons learned from the James Byrd murder; the Matthew Shepard case; how we're wired to see differences: reacting to prejudice and why hate crimes laws matter; exposing the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States; how hate groups foster fear; passing legislation that is favorable to victims of hate crimes; and much more.
All of this now and to think that it used to be like pulling teeth to get anyone, in so many police departments and city attorney offices, to say that anything was a hate crime. We are headed in the right direction for sure. I don't want to sound like a broken record or cliché but there certainly is a lot more work to be done. However, there are people like Ritter, and Officer Sina Ebinger before him, that work more hours than I can count and dedicate all that they can give to the community, our safety, and to repairing the relationship between 'us' and 'them' so one day soon it can be 'we.'
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