Farmington police officers attend training on transgender issues

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Farmington police officers and staff members received training Wednesday on how to address the unique issues faced by transgender members of the community.

The information sessions taught by staff members from the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico and Identity, Inc. addressed terminology, pronoun usage and legal issues surrounding the search and detainment of transgender individuals.

Adrien Lawyer, co-director of the Transgender Resource Center, and Judy Palier, board president of Identity Inc., began the program by explaining the differences between gender, biological sex and sexual orientation.

Lawyer said he was born biologically female but realized by age 2 he felt like a boy. Lawyer said he has used testosterone for 10 years to promote the sex characteristics of his preferred gender, such as facial hair and a deeper voice, and he self-identifies as a man.

"We are who we feel we are," Lawyer explained to a room full of law enforcement officers on Wednesday morning. "I feel like I am a man, just like every other man in this room."

Lawyer said that transgender individuals, particularly persons of color, are much more likely to be targets of discrimination and violence within the community.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, transgender individuals were twice as likely as the general population to be unemployed, and one-fifth of respondents said they experienced homelessness at some point.

"It's very hard to find a job or an apartment if you are a person that can be identified as transgender," Lawyer said.

More than half of respondents also reported being harassed in public at some point due to being transgendered, and 8 percent said they were assaulted.

One transgender woman, who asked that her name not be used due to privacy concerns, said she was beaten by four men near Hogback in August 1996 because of how she identifies herself.

The woman, now 37 and living in the Washington, D.C., area, was a Shiprock High School senior at the time and beginning to identify as a woman, despite being a male at birth.

"I was really androgynous then," she said. "Even then, people thought I was a woman."

She said her car was forced off U.S. 64 by another vehicle late one night near Shiprock. After she stopped, one man exited the other car and punched her in the face.

"At the time, I had a full mouth of braces, and I just remember my lip inside my mouth was torn open," she said.

She said the four men savagely beat her and insulted her because of her feminine appearance.

"One person was holding my hair, and they were hitting and kicking me," she said. "I was pressed up against my mother's car, and I took as much as I could."

They forced her car keys from her hand and argued about what to do next.

"I jumped up and dashed across the road," she said. "I got to the point where I saw lights at a house."

She said the family at the house let her call her mother and the police. She filed a report, but no arrests were ever made.

"It was difficult for me to explain to my family," she said. "I missed a lot of school. Most of all, I was embarrassed for being what I was — for not being able to take a stand."

According to the national survey, transgender respondents faced discrimination not only from the public, but also police and other government officials.

According to the survey, about one-fifth of respondents reported harassment by police due to being transgender. Another 6 percent reported being physically assaulted by police officers and 2 percent reported sexual assault by an officer, the survey states. As a result, nearly one half of respondents reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance, according to the survey.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe said the survey's results showed why he wanted his officers trained on issues related to the transgender community.

"We are here to protect everyone and make sure everyone's rights are upheld," Hebbe said. "And we want to make everyone feel like they can contact us."

Hebbe said he invited Lawyer to present information to officers after seeing a presentation he made at the college on the same subject.

Farmington police spokeswoman Georgette Allen said the Farmington Police Department was the first in the state to reach out to the organization for officer training.

Shari Weinstein, a former New Mexico prosecutor turned staff attorney for the transgender resource center, told officers at the session that transgender people should be addressed by their preferred name, even if it is different from their legal name.

Transgender individuals should also be referred to by the pronoun, he or she, that reflects their preferred gender, Weinstein said.

Asked by an officer how to broach the subject if the gender identity of the individual is unclear, Lawyer said to be direct and respectfully ask him or her.

Farmington police Officer Steve Smith said, as a bicycle patrolman, he has weekly contact with homeless transgender people in the community. He said the training was helpful and admitted that he has made the mistake of referring to individuals by the wrong gender identity.

Weinstein said several cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta, have implemented policies that specifically address the treatment of transgender people.

Smith said he felt such a policy would be helpful for Farmington police.

Hebbe said it's possible such a policy will be implemented by the department.

"It think it's something where we will (make) sure our policies are up to date as we go along," he said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.