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Amnesty Cites Systemic Causes of Anti-Gay Policing

by Michelle Chen

Mar. 24, 2006 – In a new report on police treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a leading international human rights group yesterday indicted the United States law-enforcement system for facilitating discrimination and abuse based on sexual orientation in American communities.

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Amnesty International released the findings of an extensive investigation of interactions between law-enforcement officers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

The group’s analysis reveals that, despite recent strides for LGBT rights through civil-rights legislation and some reforms in police practices, systemic barriers continue to stand between LGBT people and equal treatment before the law. While the report traces patterns of mistreatment that have plagued the LGBT community for generations, it takes a fresh angle on the issue of anti-queer police abuse, viewing it as a reflection of institutionalized heterosexism that runs far deeper than just encounters with "bad cops."

The report noted that because of the powerful role of law enforcement in local communities, discrimination by police threatens the rights of LGBT people on two fronts: unresponsive police leave them more vulnerable to prejudicial crimes, and hostility from officers themselves condones and exacerbates abuse.

Amnesty warned of a recent influx in hard-line community policing tactics that officers are typically free to selectively enforce, according to their own biases. For example, Amnesty argued, so-called "quality of life" ordinances in urban America have made it easier for police to crack down on the LGBT community by targeting gathering spots, like queer nightclubs, citing noise, loitering or disorderly conduct restrictions.

Amnesty described some of the abuses against LGBT individuals, which range from verbal harassment to beatings and rape, as tantamount to torture, by standards of international law. The researchers noted less-direct forms of debasing treatment as well, such as the practice of holding arrested LGBT individuals in environments where they are vulnerable to abuse by other detainees.

Aggravating police abuse of LGBT people is what Amnesty views as the grip of secrecy and impunity in the law-enforcement system. The report documented evidence that LGBT victims of police mistreatment are routinely ignored or even retaliated against in their attempts to seek legal redress against their abusers.

The broader problem, in Amnesty’s view, is a baldly dismissive attitude toward LGBT and other civil-rights issues, which undercuts the effectiveness of existing police-oversight mechanisms, such as independent civilian review boards or internal investigative units.

The surveys conducted by the group on law-enforcement agencies revealed that in general, internal-affairs departments may be reluctant and ill-equipped to deal with LGBT discrimination issues due to a lack of relevant training for officials tasked with monitoring misconduct.

Amnesty’s report draws connections between heterosexist law-enforcement practices and the classism and racism that are rampant in police misconduct cases, noting that "within the LGBT community, transgender individuals, people from ethnic or racial minorities, young people, homeless people and sex workers are at most risk of police abuse and misconduct."

Asserting that police discrimination flows out of undercurrents of anti-queer bias throughout American society, Amnesty pointed to a chain of criminalization of LGBT youth: Rejection by their families and communities pushes many young people into homelessness. Life on the streets often leads youth to resort to theft and sex work simply to survive, and confrontations with law enforcement then become yet another humiliating everyday hardship.

The Amnesty report is based on research spanning from 2003 to 2005, focused on the cities of Los Angeles, California; New York; San Antonio, Texas; and Chicago, Illinois. The project included collecting personal testimonies, surveys with law-enforcement agencies and civilian police-review boards, and over 170 interviews with independent activist groups and individuals campaigning around queer-rights, police brutality and related civil-rights issues.

Amnesty recommended both conventional and more radical means of addressing the problems raised in its report. The group suggested police departments address abuse and discrimination against LGBT individuals by establishing stricter, more transparent disciplinary processes to hold officers accountable, and by implementing training programs grounded in human rights standards that protect LGBT rights.

But the organization also called for a more holistic, societal approach to discrimination based on sexual orientation, concluding, "The issue of police brutality cannot be tackled without addressing both the pervasive discrimination that LGBT people face, and the social, economic, and cultural marginalization of many within the LGBT community."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the March 24, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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