Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner recently instituted orders concerning how Little Rock officers should conduct themselves during interactions with transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Local LGBT advocates say that the policy changes, which include how and when officers should approach, address, detain, transport and search trans people, are a step in the right direction, and a model for other communities in Arkansas to follow.
Buckner announced the changes, formally known as General Order 327, at the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance event at Philander Smith College on Nov. 19. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is meant to memorialize transgender people who have lost their lives to violence.
Among the directives covered in G.O. 327:
*Officers are ordered to address transgender people by the person's adopted name, even if the individual has not legally changed his or her name. Officers must also address the person by the pronoun associated with their identified gender.
*Officers cannot consider transgender status as reasonable suspicion or prima facie evidence that the person is or has been involved in a crime.
*Officers are forbidden from stopping, detaining or searching a person wholly or in part to determine a person's gender or "to call attention to the person's gender expression."
*Searches of transgender suspects will be conducted by two officers of the suspect's identifying gender, though if two officers of that gender are not available, the search will proceed anyway. Transgender people will not be subject to "more invasive search or frisk procedure" than non-transgender suspects.
*Officers are forbidden from using language "that a reasonable person would consider demeaning or derogatory — in particular, language aimed at a person's actual or perceived gender identity."
At the announcement of the rule change at Philander Smith, Buckner thanked Jay Miracle-Huie of Little Rock's Center for Artistic Revolution and Andrea Zekis, co-founder of the Transgender Equality Coalition, for their help in developing the new rules. He said that the issue moved up the ladder of importance for him after attending a presentation by Miracle-Huie in which he heard the disturbing statistic that 40 percent of trans people had attempted suicide. Buckner, who came to the LRPD from the Louisville Police Department in Louisville, K.Y., said he was bothered enough by the statistic that he checked to see if the LRPD had a policy governing police interactions with trans people and found nothing in place.
"That bothered me," he said. "So, I knew it was very, very important that we move on this to make sure that our agency was moving in the right direction." Buckner said that while the policy is "not a silver bullet," he sees it as a good first step. "I see this as an initial part of us getting to our desired destination of a city with a quality of life that has reduced crime and engaged community around public safety," Bucker said. "For some folks, I realize ... this will be a peanut to an elephant. But there are folks in this room who believe that this is the elephant in the room. So I think it's very, very important that we have this conversation, and it's extremely important that it come from my desk to show the level of importance, and that it is genuine, that we desire a strong relationship with everyone in the community." Going forward, Buckner said, he hopes the change will open up lines of communication and promote inclusiveness.
"Diversity will not happen by accident," he said. "It is something that has to be done with intent. This message today was intentional."
After his address to the crowd, Buckner said that officers with the department were currently undergoing diversity training. He said the new policy concerning trans people would be enforced if citizens come forward to say they felt the policy had been violated. "Individuals can come forward and make a complaint if they feel that they have been violated in some kind of way," Buckner said. "That's why it's important to educate yourselves on what the policy is, on what your rights are, [and] on what our guidelines for our officers are."
Zekis said that she and Miracle-Huie were asked to review the policy line by line with the chief. She believes that having a policy in place will give both police and the public a code of conduct that can be referred to if there's a problem.
"If there's an interaction between a transgender person and a police officer and there's an issue, then there will be a policy in place so everybody can say, 'Hey, he didn't follow the policy, or he did follow the policy,' "Zekis said. "It allows everybody to say, 'This is how it's supposed to work. It better informs the police as to how they're supposed to act towards transgender people.' "
While most police departments in larger cities around the country have policies governing interactions with transgender citizens and suspects, this is a first for Arkansas. Zekis said she hoped it would start a trend that would spread to other communities. "I think it's great to know what we should expect when in contact with police," she said. "I've had friends who are transgender who have had issues with being misgendered by police, or being treated as if they were freaks by police officers. When I started my transition, there was always the concern that if my license didn't match who I was as a person — my presence, and how I was seen — there might be difficulties for me, as far as [police] thinking I was falsely presenting myself. This gives a code of conduct for how the police department is expected to interact with the transgender community as well as what the transgender community can expect when having interactions with the police."
Penelope Poppers is the executive director and founder of Lucie's Place, a shelter for homeless LGBT young adults age 18 to 25. She said that while she's "not thrilled" that, according to the new policy, a trans person's request to be searched by an officer of their identified gender can be overruled if an officer of that gender isn't available, she hoped the policy change would start an important conversation that would lead to further reforms.
"The fact that it's happening in Little Rock is great," she said. "I would have expected to see this in Fayetteville before Little Rock for sure, so that makes me hopeful that these conversations are starting here — that groups in the Little Rock area are starting to be recognize that transgender issues have to be addressed in specific ways and can't just be necessarily treated like the issues that affect the nontransgender community."
Poppers said she hoped the policy change would lead to a bigger discussion about trans rights, including why trans people often seem to be targeted by police. She said that in her experience, officers often suspected that trans people were involved in something illegal. "It's often assumed that trans people, and specifically transwomen, are sex workers if they're standing on the street or walking down the street at night," she said. "It seems like people's first question is: What is that person really doing? What are they doing out at night? Why are they out here? We have quite a few clients at Lucie's Place who have had those sort of interactions with police officers, being questioned about, 'why are you walking around at night?' when you or I or anyone else who wasn't visibly transgender would not have had an interaction."
Poppers believes the change is promising and may speak to Buckner's willingness to address the issues of underserved communities.
"It's such a specific population with such specific needs that we need specific policies to reach out to them [so they can] live lives that can be full and fulfilling," she said, "so I'm glad to see those conversations starting. People are beginning to realize that we need to be doing more, and this is a good start to that."