Discrimination in Law Enforcement: Lethal Consequences
The constitution guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all Americans, yet there is a group who endures a life without total liberty, restrictions on their choice of lifestyle and happiness, and unfair treatment which may even result in the untimely loss of their lives. This group of people currently facing discrimination and mistreatment is the gay and lesbian community of Washington D.C., and the perpetrators are the very people whose jobs are to ensure their safety. The law enforcement is not entirely protecting gays and lesbians in D.C., nor are they ensuring that they have basic human rights. The effects of discrimination or even just insensitivity in the police department can have catastrophic negative effects on the victims, the gay and lesbian community, and the city of D.C. As a whole. When people of certain minorities are not treated equally by the law, something must be done to improve this dangerous situation. In Washington DC on July 9th, 2001, an openly gay man, Alexander Gray, fell victim to two separate hate crimes. The first happened when several men made derogatory remarks about Gray's sexual orientation, and then attacked and beat him with a shovel and a tire iron (Wilchins). Gray, both mentally and physically wounded, was then escorted home because he refused to go to the hospital for treatment of his injuries. The police drove him to his apartment, and friends say Gray was handcuffed in the backseat of the police car when he arrived (Fahrenthold "Gay Activists"). Alexander Gray was a victim of a brutal and traumatizing crime, yet the police treated him as if he were the criminal, by handcuffing him in the back of the car. The D.C. police officers responding to this hate crime were not able to treat the victim with gentleness and sensitivity he severely needed at such a time, but instead they treated him as a threat.
Throughout its history, the Washington, D.C. police department has had troubles dealing with the gay and lesbian community. There has been much bigotry and discrimination in the way some officers handled matters concerning those who are homosexual. During the 1980's many police officers held the stereotype that all people who were homosexual had AIDS, and some occasionally wore rubber gloves when they knew they would be dealing with gay individuals (Fahrenthold "Blue and Gay"). These stereotypes held by officers, along with discrimination created hostility between the gay community and the police. Frank Kameny, who helped found the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in D.C., and has been an active, involved member for thirty-one years speaks of the Metro Police Department's relationship with the gay community: "They were very much viewed as the enemy incarnate in past times. We attempted to achieve communication with the police department but they were not willing, cooperate, or friendly [...]" (Kameny). Washington D.C. has begun to do something to try and mend this troubled relationship. Their solution was to form a special group of officers to deal with people who most officers felt uncomfortable with. This group is the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the Washington D.C. police department, and all of the police officers in the unit are homosexual. This group was formed in the year 2000, when the police department realized they needed to do something about how they were handling many situations involving gays and lesbians. The department reports, "Once used mainly for public relations, the two-officer unit has begun investigating alleged hate crimes and responding to distress calls from gay clubs and businesses" (Fahrenthold "Blue and the Gay"). Many think the unit is a solution for the problem of police officers mistreating homosexuals, because the gay and lesbian officers may be more sensitive to the issues other gays and lesbians are facing. The head of the department, Officer Parsons, stated: "I think I'm able to empathize with a gay man' more than other officers, he said. 'I think I can understand what it feels like to not belong'" (Fahrenthold "Blue and the Gay").
However, on July 9th, it was not the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, but the regular police who handled Alexander Gray's emergency. Had this special unit responded, they may have been able to relate to Gray and give him the understanding he really needed, yet Gray remained hysterical and upset over the incident. According to Kevin T. Berrill and Gregory M. Herek, the authors of the book, Hate Crimes, victims of such crimes often experience painful consequences, "The world suddenly seems less predictable; people seem more malevolent." (Berrill 208). Gray seemed to experience these effects, and the fact that his attack was a hate crime causes even more issues than a random violent act. Frederick M. Lawrence's essay in The National Black Law Journal discusses the specific consequences of hate crimes, "Bias crimes not only attack the victim physically, but also strike at the very core of his identity. [...] One study of violence in the work-place found that victims of bias-motivated crimes reported a significantly greater level of psychological symptoms than did victims of non-bias motivated violence" (Lawrence). Gray was not only wounded and bleeding, but his perception of himself and of the world was horribly shaken. When people are attacked for money, they know this was a random act of violence, but when someone is specifically targeted because of their sexual preference, they know that they were being punished for being themselves. Gray was struck at the "very core of his identity," probably leaving him not only with feelings of anger, but of bewilderment and self-doubt. The psychological effects of Gray's attack, coupled with the unsympathetic manner in which the police treated him are most likely key factors in Gray's breakdown later that day.
Several hours after his attack, Gray was at his apartment with friends and he began to spit up blood, which caused his friends to call for help, but when the police and ambulance arrived, Gray again refused treatment (Fahrenthold "Gay Activists"). His refusal to go to the hospital was probably associated with the fear and anger many victims feel after a hate crime. Exactly what happened next is under dispute, "According to a friend, Gray was still in pain, upset over his assault, and walking towards his apartment. Even though witnesses testified that Gray's hands were empty and that he was not threatening anyone, D.C. police later testified that was swinging a knife and menacing nearby bystanders and that he refused to drop his weapon when ordered to do so" (Wichins). What people do know for sure is that Officer John Bevilacqua then shot Gray, who died at the hospital less than one hour later (Fahrenthold "Gay Activists"). Alexander Gray's tragic death is currently under scrutiny by the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, because there is reason to believe his death may have been a result of discrimination on the part of the police officer. A man's life may have been unjustly taken as result of homophobia. Officer Bevilacqua claimed he fired at Gray because of the alleged knife Gray held, but many disagree. A quote from the Washington Post says:
However, several friends said, it was not a knife but Gray's torn khaki pants that drew the attention of Bailey and Bevilacqua. Darrin Thomas, a longtime friend of Gray's, said one of the officers looked at Gray's thong underwear revealed by his torn trousers, and said, "He's male, why's he walking around with female drawers?" One firefighter also had made a disparaging remark about Gray's sexual orientation, Thomas said. (Fahrenthold "Gay Activists")
No one is exactly sure what happened that day, or what Officer Bevilacqua's true motives were. The police report did indicate that Gray seemed intoxicated, and they report that a four inch knife was recovered from the scene (Fahrenthold "Gay Activists"). However, the evidence of the witnesses is conflicting with that of the police officers, and whether Gray was actually brandishing a knife, or threatening any bystanders is still under debate. The possibility does exist that an officer allowed prejudice to influence his actions that day. Alexander Gray may have been killed because of his sexual orientation in a hate crime committed by the very person who was supposed to be protecting him.
The discrimination of gays and lesbians by the police department is not just happening in Washington, D.C., but occurs across the nation. In an essay by Michael Olivero and Rodrigo Murattaya found in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, they explore the evidence for homophobia in law enforcement, citing several different studies. The essay claims:
Limited research indicates that police officers hold higher levels of homophobia than other sectors of society. For example, Arnott (1994) found that many police officers have misconceptions about gays and lesbians; i.e., police feel that homosexuals are mentally abnormal, insignificant in number, are a cultural group, and are identified as an inherently illegal group. He concluded that, in general, police officers are fearful of gays and lesbians,…