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Batts says 'culture change' needed to improve interactions with LGBT community

Monica Yorkman has been harassed by police more times than she can count, she says -- and it's always been about her identity.

As a black transgender woman, cops in Baltimore constantly and unfairly peg her as a prostitute, she said.

"There's a lot of mistrust between police and transgender women," the 60-year-old activist said Monday to Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, during a police forum held specifically for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"Isn't there?" Batts responded.

Although complaints of police misconduct are down, the way some officers speak to LGBT residents remains "horrendous," Batts said -- which is why he has ramped up police academy trainings to educate new officers on LGBT issues.

Older, established officers will also get training, he said, as part of a department-wide "cultural shift" that focuses on the "three Cs," he said: crime, community and credibility.

"We're going to build a Constitutional police department that cares about all parts of our community," Batts told Yorkman -- a founding member of the organization Sisters of the T -- and the two dozen other community activists, gay residents and LGBT leaders who gathered at the evening event at the Northwest District Community Action Center.

"You have somebody who stands in front of you ready to work," Batts said, before calling himself a "reformer" who will "call balls and strikes" when assessing his department's performance.

The event was the second LGBT forum Batts has held since taking over the department in 2012, following another in Mount Vernon in October. After the beating last year of an East Baltimore gay man in an attack that some believed was a hate crime, Batts promised to improve his department's relationship with the LGBT community.

"I realized we may have an organization that doesn't have the sensitivity to the LGBT community that it should," Batts said.

The department put new effort into recruiting LGBT officers, started developing new trainings and formed a LGBT advisory council, whose members were in attendance Monday night.

Still, some at the forum said tensions have remained, and that the attention Batts has paid to building a positive relationship with the community hasn't translated into on-the-ground improvements with beat cops and other officers who respond to incidents involving LGBT residents.

Kurt Ragin, 25, a member of the University of Maryland's Star Track program, which offers care for HIV-positive and at-risk youth in Baltimore, said LGBT youth in Baltimore are often made to feel "a lot smaller than your average Baltimore City citizen" by police.

The effect, Ragin said, is LGBT youth, often vulnerable to attack, feel unprotected and turn to defending themselves any way they can -- even if that means shoving a few "bricks in a sock."

The Rev. Meredith Moise, 40, asked where the department was in multiple murder investigations in which transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals were killed, including Kelly Young and Desean Bowman. (They're unsolved.)

"It's dangerous out there, particularly for transgender folks and folks who are gender variant," Moise said after the meeting. "We want more information so people can be aware and protect themselves."

Saida Agostini, 32, of Free State Legal, which provides legal advice to low-income LGBT residents, said police sometimes lack an understanding of basic concepts, like the fact that it is not always the partner with "the more masculine gender presentation" who is the aggressor in domestic violence.

Jacqueline Robarge, of Power Inside, a social justice organization that combats gender-based violence, said she has witnessed a Baltimore police officer tell a man trying to report domestic violence that he should "man up."

Robarge and others said police respond to routine ambulance calls for mentally ill patients, and are generally gruff and insensitive. When they report these officers, they get "dismissive" internal affairs officers who are not helpful, either, they said.

Repeatedly, Batts skirted around specific questions, returning to his well-oiled talking points of shifting the department's culture, providing officers with more "tools" and making progress. He also repeatedly told members in the audience affiliated with specific groups that he'd like them to meet directly with his staff, which he said would be more helpful than him trying to "field these fast balls coming in at my head."

On some of the questions, Batts was backed up by other members of the force, including Sgt. Sarah Avery, a lesbian who leads the department's LGBT trainings, and Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a department spokesman who is gay.

At one point, Kowalczyk spoke compellingly, and to an eventual round of applause from the crowd, of seeing progress after coming up in the department as an openly gay man and being told by other officers that none of them wanted to work with the "little faggot," and that he shouldn't be in police work because it is for "real men."

Today, things are vastly different, the department is openly recruiting LGBT officers, and Batts has made it clear that discrimination won't be tolerated, he said.

"We are building progress slowly," Kowalczyk said.

After the meeting, several attendees said they'd like to see that translated onto the streets.

"There is a lot of police harrassment," Yorkman said. "It just seems like they have it out for us."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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