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The MPD’s gay and lesbian outreach unit creates positive ripples inside the force.
The District’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is among the most scrutinized forces in the country, and its visibility has only been heightened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and other high-profile events such as the Chandra Levy investigation and preparations for the postponed World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings.
But much more quietly and out of the spotlight, the MPD made an innovative move last year, forming the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU). The first unit of its kind in the United States, the GLLU was the product of internal decisions within the department and pressure from the District’s politically active gay and lesbian community.
MPD Chief Charles Ramsey has said that the purpose of the GLLU is “to promote cooperation with the police and improve public safety services to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities in all seven police districts.” Brett Parson, the openly gay sergeant who transferred from the Major Narcotics Unit to head the liaison group, sees it more simply as “a way to provide better service to citizens.”
The idea for the GLLU came from recently demoted Capt. Mark Beach (“Good Cop, Bad Cop,” 9/14) during his service as a lieutenant in the MPD’s 3rd District in the mid-’90s. Beach observed how officers interacted with the citizens in that policing districtwhich includes Dupont Circle, the spiritual and political center of the District’s gay communityand noted a lack of understanding that had led gay and lesbian residents to mistrust police.
“These issues didn’t affect me personally,” says Beach. “But I listened. They thought police were biased. Unconcerned. Uninterested. Didn’t care about gays and lesbians. Weren’t sensitive to hate crimes or partner-on-partner domestic violence.”
As a lieutenant, Beach had only a limited sphere of influence, but he never abandoned his idea of a project to address gay and lesbian issues. When Beach returned to the 3rd District in early 2000 as its commander after a stint at the FBI, he says, “the first project I dusted off was the liaison unit.”
Beach enlisted two lesbian cops who were also a coupleOfficers Bredet Williams and Kelly McMurryto bring the concept to life. As the two women helped Beach brainstorm for the project, they tried to find models elsewhere. There weren’t any in the United States, though they did find liaison units in Australia.
The trio assembled their written plan for the GLLU and submitted it to MPD commanders, where it ran into a wall. The department reasoned that a “special” gay-targeted unit wasn’t needed because, as Beach puts it, “we’re all supposed to be community liaisons already.”
When Ramsey held his quarterly meeting with representatives of D.C.’s gay and lesbian community, Beach brought up his idea again. This time, the 3rd District commander had the voices of activist leaders behind him.
Ramsey and Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer liked the idea and made it a citywide unit based at police headquarters, reporting directly to Gainer’s office.
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“On the positive side, working at headquarters means that our resources are pretty extensive,” says Parson. He lauds the “short chain of command” that reporting directly to Gainer brings to the GLLU but adds that the unit’s proximity to headquarters has the drawback of making the unit seem “intimidating and bureaucratic.”
Most of the unit’s work focuses on club-related issues, such as parking, panhandling, and cruising, whereas the balance, observes Parson, “are about domestic violence, drug complaints, and complaints about particular contacts with the police.” Parson and McMurry also keep busy patrolling, attending community meetings, and visiting gay-oriented businesses.
Gay and lesbian activists in the District are strong supporters of the unit. “We’re thrilled,” says Bob Summersgill, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. Summersgill credits Parson with “transforming the GLLU into a department that [is] out of the office and meeting with the community,” and he praises the unit’s role in calming fears of gay students at Gallaudet University last year after the murder of a fellow gay student, Erik Plunkett, in his dorm room. The unit has also been involved in the investigation of a police shooting of a gay man in July, only hours after the man had reportedly been the victim of a gay-bashing assault. A police officer shot and killed the man, who police said had been brandishing a knife.
The formation of the GLLU was a groundbreaking gesture, but the department’s own gay and lesbian cops were behind the curve in starting a metro-area chapter of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), a fraternal organization of gay and lesbian law enforcement personnel.
About two years ago, Parson recalls, he was having personal and health-related problems. “I was yearning for contact with people I wanted to be around,” he says. He noticed an ad posted by 3rd District Officer Robert Schoonover in a police newsletter for a gay and lesbian support group.
Schoonover set up the GOAL chapter in D.C. shortly after arriving in the area, getting the idea from the Internet. As he searched the Web for information about other openly gay officers in the area, Schoonover says, he found a listing for the New York City branch of GOAL.
Founded in 1981 by a New York City Police Department sergeant and a retired detective, GOAL NY was the first fraternal society to represent lesbians and gay men in the criminal-justice system. Its early meetings were quiet conclaves of fewer than a dozen officers in a church basement. It has since grown into an activist organization of approximately 1,000 members who engage in fundraising, training, and consciousness-raising activities, and it has served as a template for other gay and lesbian officers’ groups.
Schoonover postulates that an already high level of tolerance for gays and lesbians in the District, combined with the presence of so many minorities in the department, helps explain why the District had never founded a chapter before. Yet Schoonover sensed a need for one. “I thought there should be a group,” he says. “I was surprised that there wasn’t one already. As a gay man and as a police officer, you can’t just walk into any group.”
So Schoonover took out the ad that Parson noticed in the police newsletter. Word of mouth brought officers from various agencies throughout the D.C. area. GOAL DC now boasts a core group of about 30 who attend meetings and receive regular e-mails about group activities.
“People are testing the water to see what’s going on with the group,” Schoonover says. Confidentiality is a big concern, he adds, because not everyone is out of the closet on the force or at home.
Both Parson and Schoonover, however, say they feel comfortable on the force. In fact, both men say they experience more prejudice from the gay community because of their badges than they do from fellow officers who are straight.
“I don’t feel that I fit in with the gay community as comfortably as with the police community,” Parson explains.
“I’m treated better by the police officers than by the gay community,” notes Schoonover. “I’m continuously amazed at how accepting and nonchalant my co-workers are.” CP