The New Beat: The Washington Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit Is Transforming Law Enforcement and Redefining the Concept of "Community" Policing

By Fillichio, Carl A. | The Public Manager, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The New Beat: The Washington Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit Is Transforming Law Enforcement and Redefining the Concept of "Community" Policing


Fillichio, Carl A., The Public Manager


Earlier this year, Sgt. Brett Parson of the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had a problem most hiring managers in government would love to have: nearly 30 qualified and experienced police officers from within the MPD applied for two open spots in Parson's unit. From new recruits to long-time beat cops, these applicants were anxious to be a part of an exciting, unique unit that couples broad community outreach and education with traditional law enforcement and crime fighting.

What may come as a surprise is that Parson leads the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, or GLLU, a police beat with no precinct boundaries. The GLLU encompasses every race and demographic, from the vibrant gay club scene in the Nation's capital to the nameless, faceless world of the Internet where cybercrimes occur. It addresses the singular needs of the gay community--a traditionally underserved, somewhat invisible population that, despite its large size, is difficult to identify, count, and locate within geographic boundaries used in traditional community policing.

Police typically conceive of a community as geographic in nature. Even cultural and religious minority groups tend to have a centralized location where their concentrations are highest and their cultural existence is obvious to the average citizen. Police officers working in these units usually have a narrowly defined geographic beat and a very specific, identifiable constituency. But the gay community spans the greater society, and members of that community are not easily identified and, therefore, difficult to deliver specific and customized police services.

Just like the gay community, the GLLU is not limited by geographic boundaries. It goes where the constituents go. Created in 2000 in a city with one of the Nation's highest concentrations of gays, the unit has six full-time officers, plus a cadre of part-time officers and volunteers from the community. It moved two years ago into a spacious storefront "station" near trendy DuPont Circle; posters condemning hate crimes decorate its walls.

The GLLU is an attractive place for law enforcement officers (gay and straight, in MPD neighboring departments, and federal law enforcement) because of its reputation as a unit that does a whole new type of policing and gets fantastic results. By productively using community volunteers, officers are freed up for "police work," saving the department precious resources. According to one criminal justice expert, the GLLU "has become a place police officers want to be so they can do the kind of law enforcement that great police officers aspire to."

Crisis-Compelled Change

Historically, many gay people across the United States considered police departments a threat for raiding gathering places and employing unfairly selective arrest policies. The gay-rights movement is widely depicted as starting with riots over a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar. Fear and mistrust of the police has been prevalent in the gay community for a very long time, and for good reason.

In a report issued last year, Amnesty International found that abuse by urban police officers is widespread and commonplace in the gay community--with violations ranging from ignoring crimes, verbal harassment, and unfair targeting to beatings and even rape. A high profile incident in Washington, DC, is often cited as a major example of why the gay community lacks trust and confidence in the police.

The same event is also acknowledged as a catalyst for change. In this case, it was a crime by a police officer that outraged the entire DC community. In 1995, a federal grand jury indicted an MPD lieutenant--and close friend of the then-police chief--for blackmailing (known as "fairy shaking") men he believed to be living double lives: married and gay.

Recognizing the damage this did to the MPD's reputation, two lesbian officers proposed in 1999 that the local police could better serve the gay community by having a unique liaison unit. …

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