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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 13, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 46
'LGBTQ and the Police: Changing Cultures from the Inside'
A panel discussion at Central Washington Univerity
Section One
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'LGBTQ and the Police: Changing Cultures from the Inside'
A panel discussion at Central Washington Univerity

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Seattle Gay News was invited to attend and participate in a Monday afternoon (November 9) panel discussion at Central Washington University (CWU) with community organizations and law enforcement officials from the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Department of Justice and Equal Rights Washington (ERW) called 'LGBTQ and the Police: Changing Cultures from the Inside.'

I joined fellow panelists for the community presentation in the Central Washington University Student Union and Recreation Center Pit. The event was sponsored by the CWU Law and Justice department and the Center for Diversity and Social Justice. Nearly 60 students were in attendance and community members included the local police chief and media.

The focus was on how law enforcement agencies in Seattle and King County are working to become more LGBTQ friendly. The key word in that focus is 'working.' Everybody agrees that more needs to be done but considering the alternative, whereas up until recently little to nothing had been done in this area of policing, the strides that have been made towards a more understanding and accepting police force have been good ones.

Seattle Police Department's LGBTQ Liaison Officer Jim Ritter, who helped organize the event, talked to the students about the successful SPD SAFE PLACE Program and how, when he joined the police force over 30 years ago, there was only one out Gay officer and so he remained in the closet.

'The Seattle Police Department was not always LGBTQ friendly,' Ritter said, pointing out that 'In the late 1960s some police officers were involved in racketeering, where they would shake down local businesses. Officers also shook down businesses owned by Gay people, but additionally took their customer lists and threatened to blackmail customers.'

The Seattle Police Department is a completely different place today in terms of LGBTQ employment. Ritter, a Central Washington University alumnus, said he came out to fellow officer's 22-years ago and now the department boasts nearly 60 out LGB officers and that the department just hired their first known Transgender officer.

Ritter finds that LGBTQ crimes were sometimes not being reported. That is the driving force behind why he started SAFE PLACE. The SAFE PLACE Program works to provide the LGBTQ community with signs and resources with easily accessible safety information. The Safe Place Program focuses on reducing anti-LGBTQ crimes and bullying and encourages the reporting of LGBTQ crimes.

'Whatever policies we come up with in Seattle have a ripple effect,' he said.

And that is not lip-service; since the program's launch last June, more than 700 businesses have signed up to be a part of SAFE PLACE, a number of incidents have been reported and investigated through the SPD SAFE PLACE website, www.seattle.gov/spd-safe-place, and the successful program has been reported on from as far away as Dubai and Japan.

Michelle Bennett, LGBTQ liaison for the King County Sheriff's Office, and former Maple Valley Chief of Police, has been following Ritter's lead when it comes to improving LGBTQ relationships, and is focusing on diversity within her department.

Bennett, a 25-year law enforcement professional, talked about what it was like to be Lesbian and a woman on the force. She told attendees about how earlier in her career she once got asked whether she actually had bullets in her gun and whether her vest was real and somebody even asked her that between her and her wife, 'which one of you is the woman and which one is the man?'

'You couldn't be out, you had to talk in gender neutral terms,' she said. 'It was very different.'

Like Ritter, she says the environment has changed though more work is needed. She says her main focus is on improving the LGBTQ and police relationship through diversity recruiting.

'Part of what we need to do within our department is we need to reflect the community we're serving,' she said.

Knight Sor, conciliation specialist for the U.S. Department of Justice, talked with students, faculty and residents from the surrounding community about the role the DOJ plays in battling hate crimes.

'The one thing you never want to do if your community or school experiences hate crimes is to remain silent,' Sor said. 'That is what they want. The people that commit these crimes are watching for things like silence. They will do it again if they think a community can be silenced.'

Monisha Harrell, board chair for Equal Rights Washington, spoke about the importance of having LGBTQ representation on the police force and the various things that ERW is working on.

In addition to representing SGN, I was asked to speak also as the founder and president of Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) because of the work my organization has done by working with SPD, local community leaders and by developing our neighborhood LGBTQ SAFETY SHUTTLE and monthly self-defense classes (www.SocialOutreachSeattle.com).

At the end of the panel presentation, each speaker made themselves available for questions and answers and even met with students one-on-one at the end of the event to speak with them about LGBTQ and the police.

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