Your Take: When Cops Look the Other Way

Illustration for article titled Your Take: When Cops Look the Other Way

On July 30, at 3:00 a.m., five young, African-American lesbians were attacked outside the Columbia Heights Metro station in Washington, D.C. According to a police report filed by the victims, two men threatened them after one of the women declined their romantic advances by explaining that she was with her girlfriend.


That girlfriend, Yazzmen Morse, one of the victims, approached the men after they began hurling sexist and homophobic epithets at the group. The report goes on to allege that in response, the men proceeded to attack and beat Morse and her friends, prompting a bystander to call the police.

This attack is sadly the latest in a string of violence in D.C. targeting women in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and directed disproportionately at young women of color. On July 20, Lashai Mclean, a 23-year-old African-American transgender woman, was shot to death in D.C. in what is being investigated as a possible anti-transgender hate crime.

Eleven days later, Tonya Harrell, another transgender woman, was the victim of an attempted shooting but fortunately was able to escape uninjured. And on Aug. 4, one of the attackers in the April assault on 22-year-old transgender woman Chrissy Lee Polis at a Baltimore McDonald's pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and one hate crime count in the beating.

The series of attacks serves as heart-wrenching evidence of the serious need to address violence against the LGBT community, particularly LGBT women of color.

Adding deep concern to this alarming trend is that law-enforcement officers have responded inadequately in too many of these situations. We rightly expect the police to protect our most vulnerable communities from hate violence, even when humanity and a collective sense of decency cannot do so. Sadly, in some cases of anti-LGBT violence, victims and activists have charged that the police have compounded already harrowing experiences by fueling the hostility.

Many transgender activists have criticized the handling of the attacks against McClean and Harrell, alleging that police did not release adequate information to the public. In the attack involving Morse, the victims allege that the arrival of the police actually worsened the situation.


According to Morse and another victim, who has chosen to remain anonymous, the police arrived and apprehended only one of the two suspects, letting the other one flee the scene while continuing to shout sexist and homophobic slurs at the women. The police allegedly restrained the other attacker for a short time before releasing him, too.

The police report goes on to allege that the officers on the scene refused to take a statement from the women, telling them that they were "too agitated" and informing them that the police wouldn't talk to them because they "didn't know how to act." The victims were unable to file their report until days later, when they turned to the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, a unit within the police department created specifically to help increase reporting for anti-LGBT violence.


If their version of the story is accurate, the ease with which the panic of the victims was ignored points to a larger problem with the way the anger of black women can be callously dismissed. It's an attitude ultimately traceable to the "angry black woman" stereotype: a caricature of black women that portrays black women as irrationally angry and belligerent with little or no provocation.

It's a curious rhetorical trick: The stereotype tells us that black women are always angry, so their anger can be discounted and it is viewed as more hostile and threatening than other people's anger. It allows police officers to be so put off by the anger of five black women who were just attacked that they refuse to take a report, but not so moved by that anger that they acknowledge the gravity of the attack. It allows people to simultaneously take the anger of black women too seriously and not seriously enough.


Of course the victims would have been agitated. Senseless attacks that target individuals because of their identity and subject them to chilling violence shock the conscience of most people. Of all the emotions of those who actually experience the violence firsthand, agitation should be the least surprising.

But these five victims were black and young and women and lesbians. And that combination of marginalized identities may well have led to their anger being ignored, their pain excused, their fear dismissed and their humanity denied.


If these officers actually refused to file a report on this heinous crime, that fact demonstrates a stunning, inexcusable dereliction of duty. And while the presence of the GLLU in the D.C. police department is a laudable addition, it cannot serve as an excuse for other officers to deny protection to LGBT victims of crime.

Fortunately, D.C. police Chief Cathy Lanier shares this assessment. Lanier stated that she was "appalled" when she heard about this incident. She has promised that there will be an investigation, and if the story is confirmed, the officers who shirked their responsibility to protect these young women will be disciplined.


There are many biases that played into these women being targeted for violence and why that violence was allegedly not taken seriously enough by law enforcement. All those reasons have their roots in the most shameful injustices in our society. Law-enforcement officials cannot cure those injustices alone, but we can at the very least expect that they will not perpetuate them.

Maya Rupert is the federal policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an LGBT-rights organization dedicated to fighting for rights on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families.