LGBT activists and officials with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department have given conflicting accounts of the reason behind the shutdown earlier this month of the volunteer operated website of the department’s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has disputed claims by some LGBT activists that she shut down the site, saying through a spokesperson that the site closed after its longtime volunteer operator stepped down.
But the site’s operator, Sterling Spangler, told the Blade that Lanier and other MPD officials rejected his request that they recruit another volunteer to run the site, which some in the LGBT community viewed as the GLLU’s “official” website.
Spangler, a former GLLU volunteer, told the Blade he has operated and maintained the website since 2003. He said the site was housed on an outside server independent of the MPD’s website and that its domain name was purchased and set up by Matt Ashburn, another GLLU volunteer, shortly after the GLLU was first created by former D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey.
Activists, including Spangler, say the site – although run by volunteers – became the de facto official GLLU website in 2006, when Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government named the GLLU the winner of its prestigious Innovations in American Government Award, which came with a $100,000 grant.
According to Spangler and other activists, at that time, the official MPD website didn’t have a page or section devoted to the GLLU. Spangler said as many as a half dozen or more GLLU volunteers from the LGBT community helped maintain the website, GLLU.org.
Spangler noted that the GLLU.org website was paid for entirely by funds from the Harvard grant. The grant requires the GLLU to have a website for carrying out the grant’s mission of reaching out to the LGBT community on police related issues.
Spangler, who served as manager of the website until October of this year, said things changed when newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty named Lanier as the new police chief in early 2007. Lanier quickly moved to decentralize the GLLU by creating affiliate members in each of the department’s seven police district.
While activists didn’t object to the affiliate members they complained that the new chief was cutting back on resources and personnel for the central GLLU office in Dupont Circle. Spangler said Lanier’s changes and the subsequent decision by Sgt. Brett Parson to leave the GLLU to work as a street patrol supervisor resulted in the website “withering on the vine.”
“I couldn’t get anyone to give us content for the site,” he said. “After a while the site looked ridiculous because it was so out of date. And I wasn’t sure the community cared anymore.”
Under Lanier’s tenure, the MPD’s official website added special pages for the GLLU and the department’s three other special liaison units.
But to the amazement of many LGBT activists, high-level MPD officials disclosed earlier this year that they had not been aware of the GLLU.org site or of the Harvard grant and about $49,000 in grant funds that remained in an account hosted by the non-profit charitable gay group Brother Help Thyself.
Brother Help Thyself became the fiduciary agent for the grant funds in 2009 after another group linked to Harvard ceased operating, according to Mark Clark, the Brother Help Thyself treasurer.
Clark said Harvard informed the GLLU in 2006 that an independent, non-profit group had to serve as custodian of the funds under rules established by Harvard’s grants program.
Spangler said after more than 10 years as a volunteer, and after he determined the MPD’s top brass wasn’t interested in the website, he informed GLLU interim supervisor Sgt. Matt Mahl in late summer or early fall of this year that he planned to step down from his role of operating the website.
“I don’t know who he contacted,” said Spangler. “But when he got back to me he said MPD has decided to discontinue the website.”
Much to his amazement, Spangler said investigators with the department’s Internal Affairs Unit contacted him for information about the grant funds and informed him that Lanier ordered an investigation of the use of those funds.
Police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump told the Blade this week that the investigation concluded there “was no misconduct from any member [of the department] and no evidence of misuse of funds.”
Spangler said he learned later through police sources that it was Chief Lanier’s decision to close the website based, in part, on “budgetary issues.”
But Crump, in a statement sent to the Blade, disputed Spangler’s claim.
“Chief Lanier did not shut the site down,” she said. “That website was maintained by a volunteer who is no longer able to maintain the site. All four units of the Special Liaison Division are represented on MPD’s website.”
Spangler considers Crump’s statement misleading, saying MPD officials could easily recruit another volunteer to operate the website. He said the grant funds, which total slightly more than $49,000, could be used to pay for the website’s operation as well as more community outreach efforts by the GLLU.
MPD officials, meanwhile, have not said what they plan to do with the $49,000 in grant funds, which remain in a Brother Help Thyself bank account. Spangler says he remains hopeful that Lanier will reconsider her decision not to arrange for a volunteer or MPD staff person to operate the website.