FBI Officials Meet with Leaders of Hampton Roads’ LGBTQ Community at Tysinger Automotive

By, Justin Ayars, JD

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This year has seen a surge of challenging conversations between law enforcement and citizens. Minority communities, including the LGBTQ community, have long criticized police and other law enforcement agencies for fostering a culture of discrimination against minorities. After 49 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the safety and security of the LGBTQ community moved into the national spotlight and became a political talking point. Even Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, promised “to protect our LGBT citizens” during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Given that the LGBTQ Rights Movement emerged out of a violent battle against police at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, many LGBTQ citizens have had a natural, and sometimes justified, fear about law enforcement. NPR has reported that a “2012 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs of LGBT survivors of violence found that 48% of those who’d had contact with police reported they’d experienced some form of misconduct during those interactions including excessive force, unjustified arrest, entrapment [or] . . . ‘misgender[ing]’ trans victims of crimes in the media. . . .” NPR also reported that in 2011, the Department of Justice found that LGBT people in New Orleans were subject to “harassment and disrespectful treatment” by New Orleans police.

Sgt. Brett Parson, an openly gay officer in Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, told NPR that “Police officers right now are feeling highly scrutinized, misunderstood, and at a bit of a loss” as to how to change the perception that LGBTQ people have towards law enforcement. He wants the LGBT community to know that the police are there not just to show support, but to provide protection for that community. Washington, D.C.’s Capital Pride Parade came the day after the Orlando shooting. Parsons told NPR that he thought that the beefed up police presence at that event made people feel safe. However, he cautioned, “we have to acknowledge that there are going to be people in the community that don’t feel safe around us and we need to work our butts off to figure out why.”

In an effort to change perceptions the LGBTQ community has towards law enforcement, this summer FBI officials met with LGBTQ leaders from Hampton Roads at Tysinger Automotive. Vanessa Torres, the Community Outreach Specialist for the FBI’s Norfolk Division, said that she wanted the LGBT community to learn more about the FBI’s mission, priorities and its attempt to diversify its recruitment process. Moreover, she said that the FBI wanted to hear the concerns that LGBT citizens had when it came to safety, security and everyday interactions with law enforcement. “You are the pulse of the community. We want to work with you and hear from you on these important issues,” Torres said at the meeting. “Let’s have the conversation before a tragedy occurs.”

The 90-minute conversation included discussing the fact that because Virginia does not have a hate crime bill, crimes that would normally fall under such a statute are prosecuted as aggravated assaults. However, when appropriate, individuals can still be prosecuted under the federal hate crimes statute. When asked about the agency’s efforts to become more inclusive, Torres noted that FBI Director James Comey (William & Mary Class of 1982) took a major step forward by adding “diversity” to the FBI’s core values—a sacred set of values that has not changed for many years. One breakthrough occurred during the meeting when FBI officials admitted that their agency’s relationship with colleges and universities across Virginia is a “work in progress.” The group agreed that because educating young people is a critical part of changing public perception, the agency needs to actively connect with LGBTQ groups on campuses across Hampton Roads and beyond.

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The meeting concluded with a mutual understanding that LGBTQ citizens and the FBI need to open the lines of communication and keep them open. Aware of the LGBTQ community’s possible stigma against the FBI, Torres told the group, “We are one of you. We live in the same communities. Some officers have LGBT members in our families or networks of friends. We hope you don’t place stereotypes on us. Not all law enforcement officers are bad. Underneath our titles we’re human beings and we do care. A lot of people forget our humanness.”

In the wake of the Orlando massacre and all of the violence across America today, it is imperative that the LGBTQ community work with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies so that they can do their jobs and keep us safe. Similarly, law enforcement agencies must be willing to listen to the concerns of the communities they serve. The meeting that took place this summer at Tysinger Automotive is a wonderful first step towards creating an ongoing dialogue that can build trust and mutual respect between law enforcement officials and the LGBTQ community.