Philly Police Make Trans-Friendly Moves

Feb 12, 2014 at 12:56 PM ET

Police and corrections officers aren’t exactly known for sensitivity, but on Monday the Philadelphia PD announced a new policy aimed at better serving the city’s transgender population. The forward-thinking guidelines range from using a transgender person’s preferred pronoun, both in person and in references in front of the press, to technicalities such as detention, transportation and processing. 

“We’re not here to judge folks,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told the local paper. “We’re here to serve folks.”

Philadelphia’s initiative, Directive 152, is part of a nationwide movement to advise officers on the proper way to treat trans victims and offenders. In recent years, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, D.C. and even the red-state city of Houston have enacted similar policies following pressure from local trans activist groups and the increasingly progressive societies the departments serve. “We stay ahead of the curve,” Houston Sheriff Adrian Garcia told the Associated Press in November. The new policies vary slightly from city to city, but include guidelines such as:

  • Use people’s preferred pronoun when referring to or addressing them.
  • Classify transgender arrestees according to their government-issued IDs unless an arrestee has had gender-conforming surgery. Absent an ID, arrestees will be classified according to their genitalia.
  • Keep transgender arrestees in single-cell occupancy “wherever practical.”
  • Refer to transgender victims, witnesses, or arrestees by their preferred names when speaking to news reporters.
  • Requests to remove appearance-related items, such as prosthetics, clothing that conveys gender identity, wigs, and cosmetics, shall be consistent with requirements for the removal of similar items for non-transgender individuals.

The implementation of the Philadelphia policy, like those before it, will include sensitivity training for officers and the signing of consent forms, but it remains to be seen if this will change the situation on the street.

“We speak to the cadets for a couple of hours,” says Fran Price, the executive director of Philly Pride. “But you really can’t teach sensitivity and diversity in such a short period of time, so our goal is to make it an actual part of their training, not just with trans but with all LGBT issues. The policy is just a start.”

According to leaders of the gay community in Philadelphia, consistent complaints from transgender people in the area after contact with local police prompted the policy’s introduction. Local activists were also dismayed by the way trans victims and offenders were referred to in media, which is influenced by the jargon used in police reports.

“When a transgender woman is referenced in the news, they used to call her a man in a dress,” says Price. “We complained and complained and then somebody listened. Someone finally listened.”

Price sees the Philadelphia policy as particularly pioneering because it actually addresses the language that should be used when dealing with members of the transgender community, something that will hopefully trickle down to influence the greater public. “This is big,” Price says. “Officers will actually be reprimanded if they don’t follow the directive.”

The consequences of not having such reforms in place were brought home as recently as Tuesday, when Avery Edison, a 25-year-old comedian and writer, live-tweeted her own deplorable treatment by Canadian customs officials. Edison, a transgender woman, was visiting from London, but was detained after it was discovered that she had previously overstayed her Canadian student visa on her last visit. Officials told her she would be held in solitary confinement because of her trans status, but they later took her to a co-ed correctional facility where she had to be examined by a nurse prior to being transferred to a female or male cell. Due to the fact that she had not undergone sexual reassignment surgery, she was placed in male cell, as directed by her genitals, rather than her preferred identity. Avery’s 13,200 followers are not pleased, lawyers have been called and a Jezebel-fueled shitstorm has since ensued.

Unsurprisingly, police haven’t always had the best reputation when it comes to attending to the transgender community. A 2012 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that members of the transgender community experience three times more police violence than the rest of the population. And, once incarcerated, violence from other inmates poses another serious concern, especially in the form of sexual assault. Transgender women (biological males who identify as females) are especially vulnerable when placed in holding cells with male inmates.

A 2007 California study found that 59 percent of transgender women reported experiencing sexual abuse while in a California prison, which shows the immediate need for reforms regarding housing procedures. Fortunately, Edison was eventually moved to women’s facility, but only after the media and unnamed politicians allegedly intervened. The policy changes in Philadelphia and beyond are a promising sign of things to come, but it shouldn’t take cases like Edison’s to demonstrate such an obvious need. As Price understands it, being identified as one wishes is a “basic courtesy.”