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There's A 'Backdrop Of Historic Distrust' In Police In Crimes Against Trans Community


At least 50 transgender or nonbinary people have been killed in the U.S. and Puerto Rico since this time last year, many of them women of color. That number comes from the Human Rights Campaign, but the group says that is only an estimate because of victim's gender identity is not always reported in official accounts. Investigating these crimes can be complicated. Police often need to navigate conflicting information about a victim's gender. And as NPR's Brianna Scott reports, that detective work is happening against a backdrop of historic distrust.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Today I urge you to commit that today is the very last day that transphobia will claim the lives, loves and joys of Black trans people.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: The day is June 14, 2020. Thousands of people gather in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the Black Lives Matter rally.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Black trans power matters.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Black trans power matters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And we're taking that message to the streets today.

SCOTT: Rallies like this one were organized in response to two Black trans woman being killed in the same week - Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells in Pennsylvania and...






SCOTT: Riah Milton was 25, and she lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. She worked as a home health aide and attended the University of Cincinnati. Then last June, Milton was shot to death.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Butler County Sheriff's Office responded to a dead body discovered in Liberty Township.

ALEXIS ROGERS: On June 9, Milton was shot and killed. Investigators say it was a robbery that took a deadly turn.

SCOTT: Three people have now been charged in relation to Milton's death. The week of her killing, Sheriff Richard Jones of Butler County, Ohio, was asked at a press conference whether Milton may have been targeted because she was trans.


RICHARD JONES: No, no, absolutely not. This person was lured there...

SCOTT: Butler then misgendered Milton, using male instead of female pronouns. And the sheriff's office used Milton's birth name in press releases rather than the name she lived by, an action known as deadnaming. Now, there are investigative reasons the police might do that. The Butler County Sheriff's Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment from NPR, but it did tell a local newspaper that it reported Milton's gender according to a coroner's report and a detective's interview with her parents. But by deadnaming and misgendering Milton, the sheriff's office upset some of her loved ones, along with members of the transgender community, many of whom are already skeptical of law enforcement due to a history of transphobia.

One department that has learned from errors like this is the Los Angeles Police Department.

JULES SOHN: I can't tell you how happy I was when I saw a report that said gender identity in it.

SCOTT: Jules Sohn of the LAPD has been training officers to do a better job of investigating crimes against trans people and says the department has worked with LGBTQ community members over the years to improve its training program. Sohn says she used to see crime reports where officers would confuse, for example, sexual orientation and gender identity, which can create problems when cases are prosecuted.

SOHN: And, you know, this is, like, a legal document. And it's so important when you go to court.

SCOTT: And that legal document - yes, it might include a person's deadname and sex assigned at birth if that's what appears on their government ID. But the LAPD has a best practice of also including a person's gender identity and chosen name if it differs from their ID. Sohn points to one case where that made a huge difference - the murder of Viccky Gutierrez in 2018.

SOHN: It was a tragic case. But in terms of, like, knowing that we're dealing with a homicide of a transgender woman, we used her name, her pronouns.

SCOTT: LAPD Detective Sharon Kim oversaw that case. She told NPR in an email that understanding Gutierrez's gender identity helped detectives build a victim profile, and she believes it helped them gain a confession from the suspect, too. Detective Kim also said that interacting with the LGBTQ community during the case helped the agency build a better understanding between that community and the LAPD. The relationship between the two groups is improving after a long history of problems. LAPD LGBTQ coordinator Beatrice Girmala singled out the night of New Year's Eve, 1966.

BEATRICE GIRMALA: The seeds of distrust that were sown on that night still in many hearts and minds within the LGBTQ community continue today.

SCOTT: That night, plainclothes officers raided a bar popular with the LGBTQ community called the Black Cat Tavern. After the clock struck midnight, officers began arresting and beating patrons, later spurring one of the first U.S. protests against police brutality targeted at LGBTQ people. Activist Eden Luna has worked with the LAPD as a member of the Transgender Advisory Council, a group established by the city of LA in 2016. Luna recognizes that, as a young person, they're growing up in an era in which it is possible for transgender people to work alongside police.

EDEN LUNA: I do also want to honor that it's not always been that way, and I think many older pioneers of the movement may still remember a day when they felt like they weren't given the same respect.

SCOTT: Other trans advocates say these reforms are small steps amidst a larger cultural reckoning over policing.

ARIA SA'ID: I don't think there's any amount of trainings that are going to shift the culture that is policing today, that is law enforcement today.

SCOTT: Aria Sa'id is a political strategist based in San Francisco.

SA'ID: You have people who are engaging in force in law enforcement because they've been taught to fear certain bodies.

SCOTT: Sa'id has been involved in a local campaign to reallocate money from police departments to address issues such as mental health and ending homelessness. She says reducing violence against trans people requires addressing the things that make trans people vulnerable to violence in the first place, like poverty or housing and job discrimination. As police aim to rehabilitate their relationship with the trans community and to solve and prevent violent crimes against them, Sa'id says trans people need to have a voice in that future.

SA'ID: Trans people have to be the decision-makers in creating solutions for the disparity that we face. That social justice effort and social change has to be led by trans people for trans people.

SCOTT: Despite the deaths of at least 50 transgender people in the past 12 months, Sa'id says the resilience of the trans community and the work she and other transgender people are doing is what gives her hope the violence will stop one day soon. Brianna Scott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NEVERGREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.