June 26, 2020 at 8:28 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBTQ activists express mixed views on defunding police
A protest earlier this month calling for defunding D.C. police ended at the home of Mayor Bowser. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Local LGBTQ organizations and activists have expressed mixed views over whether the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department should be partially or completely “defunded” in the midst of a growing nationwide debate triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement to address police brutality and racial bias.

Several local LGBT groups and activists have said they support calls by the Black Lives Matter D.C. organization for significantly reducing the D.C. police budget and diverting police funds to social services and community-led violence interruption programs.

But none of the groups or activists who spoke to the Washington Blade has gone as far as others who say the D.C. police budget should be reduced each year “until we get to zero.”

However, the local LGBTQ group No Justice No Pride, which organized a June 13 protest rally and march in support of defunding the D.C. police that ended in front of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Northwest D.C. house, called on the mayor to “immediately defund MPD.”

Some local LGBTQ activists, who appear to be in the minority, say they are cautious about any reduction in the D.C. police budget until the alternative crime reduction programs favored by Black Lives Matter D.C. and other groups are shown to be effective in reducing crime and protecting the safety of city residents.

These activists point out that LGBTQ people, especially transgender women of color, have been subjected to anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and other violent crimes to a greater degree than other population groups.

“This is a very complex issue,” said longtime gay and Democratic Party activist Earl Fowlkes, who serves as executive director of the D.C.-based national LGBTQ organization Center for Black Equity.

“It has a lot to do with crime and why there is crime and what do we do to prevent crime before the police are even involved,” said Fowlkes, who expressed support for the social services programs advocated by Black Lives Matter and others to address the root causes of crime.

“But do we defund the police or eliminate the police? I don’t see that as a viable alternative at this time,” he said.

Officials with the DC Center for the LGBT Community and Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes the city’s annual Pride parade and festival, have expressed support for the “Defund MPD” calls by the local Black Lives Matter leaders, but have not called for a full defunding of the police budget.

In a joint email to local LGBTQ activists, the two groups have called for diverting funds from the police budget to help fund 11 specific LGBTQ-related programs proposed by a coalition of 10 local LGBTQ or LGBTQ supportive organizations of which the DC Center and Capital Pride are members.

Rehana Mohammed, chair of the DC Center’s board of directors, told a June 15 D.C. Council hearing on police issues that the Center opposes a proposal by Mayor Bowser to increase the police budget by $18.5 million for fiscal year 2021.

“We recommend instead investing those funds in community safety, social services, violence interruption programs, and community support programs,” Mohammed testified at the hearing. “The current strategies of creating reforms and increasing funding are simply not working,” she said.

She attached to her written testimony the list of the 11 proposed LGBTQ programs that the coalition supporting them wants the D.C. Council to fund in the city’s FY 2021 budget that amount to $10.6 million.

Mohammed was referring to a sweeping police reform bill that the D.C. Council approved unanimously as an emergency measure on June 9. But the bill does not address the police budget, which the Council is expected to approve in July.

Ashley Smith, chair of the Capital Pride Alliance board of directors, said he too believes the traditional policing strategies in D.C. and other cities have failed to significantly reduce crime and create safer communities.

“I think Capital Pride, from an organizational perspective, we are totally advocating for funds to be diverted and greater investments to be made in supportive and preventive and community-based programs in order to address the needs of diverse communities,” Smith said.

Bobbi Elaine Strang, president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance and a supporter of some degree of defunding the D.C. police, said she agrees with arguments by defunding advocates that much of the current funding for police goes to activities that police should not be doing.

“Our society asks police officers to act as drug counselors, mental health workers, and social workers,” Strang said. “There are agencies and supportive services that are much better equipped to deal with those issues that should be sufficiently funded, which will allow us to limit the scope of the work we expect from police officers and enhance public safety,” she said.

Among those agreeing with Strang’s assessment is Naseema Shafi, CEO of Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s largest private healthcare agency serving the LGBTQ community.

“Whitman-Walker believes that funding for public safety should go to programs that create public safety,” Shafi told the Blade. “With that core belief, we support disinvesting in armed policing as a method of creating safety and in investing in our public safety budget including social supports that we know interrupt violence such as health care, education, housing, employment and other key areas,” she said.

“Sending armed police to respond to instances of intimate partner violence, mental health crises, and housing instability has not safely or effectively served the LGBTQ community,” Shafi said. “Whitman-Walker believes that through listening to leaders in Black communities who have been envisioning a safer and more equitable future, we can create a public safety and justice system that makes our whole community safer and stronger,” she said.

Longtime D.C. gay activist and Ward 8 community leader Phil Pannell expressed a differing view when he spoke during a June 15 webinar on the D.C. police funding issue hosted by Capital Pride and the DC Center. Among the panelists who spoke at the webinar in favor of reducing the police budget were Preston Mitchum, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center; and Ward 4 D.C. Council candidate and community activist Janeese Lewis George.

“I’m going to be really honest, and it really hurts to say this,” Pannell said during the online forum. “But as a black gay senior citizen who lives in a poorer part of town, I’m more afraid of being on the streets of Ward 8 and being confronted by a young man in a hoodie than someone in a police uniform,” he said.

“I’ve been one of those folks who have been in the chorus of wanting more police in Ward 8 because I’ve been victimized so many times,” Pannell said. “And right on the block where I live I’ve had three neighbors and friends who have been killed. And none of them were killed by police,” Pannell said.

“I would hope that those of us in the LGBTQ community will at least engage in meaningful discussion with police officers,” he said. “And I truly feel that we can have an honest discussion about police brutality without brutalizing the police.”

Pannell told the Blade he acknowledges the need for police reforms to prevent the police killings of black men in other cities that have rocked the country and triggered ongoing protests against police abuse.

“But I don’t believe the behavior of rogue cops represents the general behavior of the police any more than I think the behavior of pedophile priests represents the general behavior of the Roman Catholic clergy,” Pannell said.

D.C. police spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck did not respond to a request by the Blade for the police view of what impact a substantial cut in the police budget would have on police efforts to curtail hate crimes, including anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

The Blade also asked Sternbeck in an email whether police officials think a cut in the police budget would have a negative impact on the operation of the police LGBT Liaison Unit, which has responded for many years to calls for police help by LGBTQ people in the city. Sternbeck or another police spokesperson had not responded as of late Tuesday.

Gay former D.C. Police Lt. Brett Parson, who served as head of the department’s Special Liaison Branch that oversees the LGBT Liaison Unit, retired from the force last year. When asked last week about his views on the controversy surrounding calls for defunding the police and the impact it could have on the LGBT Liaison unit, Parson declined to comment. But he offered his view on the overall policing issues under debate across the country.

“I support the current discussions and calls for reform of policing in our nation,” he said. “If we are to have true peace and equality in our nation in communities, regardless of race or any other trait, police must gain the trust of all citizens through fair, compassionate, and effective reform,” Parson said. “I hope to be part of that reform movement.”

Gregory Pemberton, chair of the D.C. Police Union, told the Blade the union strongly opposes cuts to the police budget. When asked by the Blade if a significant budget cut would have an impact on the police response to calls for police help by LGBTQ people, he said police response to all calls for service would be hindered. 

“MPD responds to over 700,000 911 calls per year,” he said. “That’s nearly 2,000 calls per day where someone is in distress. If we start reducing the number of police officers or their equipment like cars and bicycles, the response time will increase for all citizens,” Pemberton said.

“The first things that are going to be cut from police services are training and personnel,” he said in discussing the impact of a large budget cut. “These are the two tenets of responsible policing, having well trained police and having enough of them to respond to the citizens,” said Pemberton. “The idea that cutting the budget would somehow improve policing is completely contradictory to common sense.”

When asked what he thought of proposals by Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ organizations to divert funds from the police to community-based violence interruption programs as an alternative to police involvement, Pemberton said he and the union would be “all ears” if such programs would lessen the need for a police response.

But he added, “Until someone provides us with a blueprint of exactly how this would work, I’m leery of how successful these approaches would be.”

Among those expressing concern over police defunding are LGBTQ nightlife industry workers, many of whom are hoping to return to work at the city’s restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that have been forced to close or limit operations due to coronavirus.

“As a nightlife advocate, I know firsthand how special policing programs make our nighttime socializing areas safe for workers and accessible for patrons,” said gay nightlife business advocate Mark Lee. “As venues fully re-open in the next fiscal year, they want to ensure there are sufficient monies to reduce the major pre-shutdown crime spike in commercial districts,” Lee said.

“Cities across the country with robust nightlife economies like D.C. are working to create ‘best practice’ approaches for nighttime safety utilizing dedicated police teams,” Lee said. “A merely symbolic slashing of the MPD budget threatens these initiatives.”

Lee said he was also troubled that requests by some local LGBTQ groups to redirect police funds to their organizations to operate proposed LGBTQ programs “smacks of opportunism and self-interest” and appears to be “less about how to improve policing than it is a money grab.”

Kent Boese, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, serves as an elected member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A in Adams Morgan. He said that while the Stein Club and his ANC have yet to take a position on the police defunding issue, he is concerned that while important city agencies such as the Office of Human Rights are slated for budget cuts, the mayor’s budget calls for an increase in funding for the police.

“While the current budget shows a strong priority for MPD, it does not similarly show a strong commitment to the critical services and programs that will make every District community a safer place,” Boese told the Blade. “So reducing the MPD budget is not only a legitimate option, it is a moral obligation provided the money is reprogrammed into the very services and programs that will result in safer, stronger communities – services and programs that have themselves been defunded for decades to the detriment of all.”

Adam Savit, president of the LGBTQ group Log Cabin Republicans of D.C., pointed to the separate April 2018 and June 2019 beatings of gay men by male attackers along the U Street, N.W. entertainment district as examples of why traditional policing is necessary to address incidents like these.

“Making moderate changes to the D.C. police budget and priorities may be helpful in solving existing problems in police-community relations,” Savit said. “However, massive funding cuts or defunding the police entirely shows a complete misunderstanding of why responsible use of force is needed to keep citizens safe,” he said.

“Perhaps more destructive than defunding is the moral and political undermining of the police to the point that they can’t do their job,” he said. “All citizens, including LGBT citizens, would be less safe if the MPD is defunded.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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