When police are called to handle domestic disputes between a couple in Allen Reber's city neighborhood, officers don't seem to take it seriously enough, he contends. That's because the couple is gay, Reber says. And it doesn't bode well for Reber's own ability as a gay man to seek the help of law enforcement, he says.
Reber, who works for Community Human Services Corporation, is active with the Shepherd Wellness Center and the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. "It's not taken seriously," he says of the gay couple's repeated fights. "I end up coming out of my apartment. [Police] know they're dealing with a gay couple. They're uncomfortable. It's kind of a laughable situation for them. Why not sensitivity training" for police, he suggests, starting back in the training academy?
Voices for a New Tomorrow, the monthly gathering of gay activists hoping to set what they've labeled "the gay agenda" for the city and county, met on Sept. 28 in East Liberty to propose ways to ease community relations with law enforcement.
Members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) communities are sometimes afraid to report being victims, which "is a problem in and of itself," says Voices organizer Sue Kerr, who works for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania. This happens despite the fact that all the police assigned to protect public GLBT events in the city "are respectful [and] have been really courteous," in Kerr's experience.
A transgender member of Voices pointed out just how complex the intersection of GLBT issues and law enforcement can be. "People are jailed based on genitalia," she said, leaving someone with a penis, yet also "with a strong female presentation," in a cell full of men if arrested.
Elizabeth Pittinger, head of the Citizen Police Review Board, pointed out that the city's Human Relations Commission (of which she is emeritus chair) added broad coverage of transgender individuals six years ago. "Presentation, perception, appearance -- doesn't matter," Pittinger says; the Commission handles complaints about them all. But she echoed Kerr's views: "We have the most progressive laws on the books, but when it comes to reporting [violations] -- we don't. We've got to use it or it will lose its value."
Laura Dunhoff, a six-year veteran investigator for the city's police oversight bureau, the Office of Municipal Investigation, acknowledged the community's lack of confidence in OMI's complaint process. But she suggested that even anonymous complaints that never get resolved may do some good. "Even if it becomes your word against the officer's word," says Dunhoff, a complaint still follows the officer in his record. As for the next mayor, presumably Democratic nominee Bob O'Connor, Dunhoff suggested telling him: "You've attended a few gay events, you've pandered a little to the community, now put your money where your mouth is" and institute better police training in how to deal with the GLBT community.
Group members plan to produce a brochure aimed at informing GLBT residents about their rights when dealing with law enforcement. They also plan to approach the county executive and the governor about improving local police training, since city police training also involves the county's police academy and continuing education organized by Harrisburg.
Even with the cooperation of government at all these levels, such sensitivity training may be tough to institute. Although Dunhoff, who deals with police all the time in her job, says she knows of gay officers, "I don't know of any out, out ones."