GLAA testifies on police and corrections
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Testimony for Oversight Hearings
on Police and Corrections

Committee on the Judiciary
D.C. Council

MARCH 3, 1999

Chairman Brazil, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

My name is Craig Howell. I am President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization. With me this afternoon is Rick Rosendall, my immediate predecessor as GLAA President, now serving as our Public Safety Coordinator.

We welcome these oversight hearings as a valuable opportunity to brief the Committee on the Judiciary on the current state of relations of the District's gay and lesbian community with the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Corrections.

While I am pleased to note that major improvements have been made in the past year in these relations, a number of problems persist, and some of those problems have actually grown worse.

Metropolitan Police Department

The most significant improvements in our community's relations with the Metropolitan Police Department can be traced to two developments in 1998. First was the appointment of Charles Ramsey as Chief. The second was the passage of legislation establishing a new civilian complaint review system for handling complaints from the general public about alleged misconduct by police officers. I would like to discuss each of these developments.

It would be hard to overestimate the damage that was done to relations between the police and the gay and lesbian community by the scandal surrounding the dismissal of former Police Chief Larry Soulsby and his involvement with Lt. Jeffrey Stowe, who was trying to blackmail married patrons of the gay establishments on O Street SE. The beginning of the recovery in those relations might be traced to the intensive involvement of gay and lesbian community leaders, including Mr. Rosendall, in the search process that culminated with the appointment of Charles Ramsey as Chief of the MPD.

On November 9 Chief Ramsey met with a broad group of gay and lesbian leaders. Without running through the entire agenda of that meeting and subsequent developments, I believe I can confirm that the Chief by and large has proven to be sensitive to our concerns, and that our relations with the police force are better than they were a year ago.

Let me interject here that I very much appreciated Chief Ramsey's testimony here a few minutes ago when he said he was having all new police recruits visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council as part of their training in community relations and sensitivity. He spoke very eloquently about how all officers need to understand how the police in Nazi Germany were transformed into an agency of oppression and persecution, the implications of a steady erosion of individual rights, and the need to overcome their own personal prejudices in order to serve all people of our city with respect and dignity. The Holocaust Museum includes a number of exhibits about the systematic persecution of gay men by the Nazis. I'm proud to say that GLAA spearheaded the effort to get such exhibits included in the Museum by providing solid documentation on this topic, which many Holocaust experts here and abroad had preferred to overlook.

Last year's enactment of legislation establishing a new civilian complaint review system was a major breakthrough for our community. With so many others throughout the District, we had been dismayed when the Council arbitrarily abolished the old Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1995 without providing for any kind of replacement mechanism. The old CCRB had been racked with problems, not the least of which was that it had become an orphan agency with no one in or out of government willing to assume responsibility for the substantial overhaul it required.

We were disheartened when the Council's first efforts to establish a new system for handling complaints about police misconduct proved abortive. The original proposal only reflected the views of Chief Soulsby, the so-called Memorandum of Understanding Partners, and the notorious Booz-Allen consultants. But subsequent developments towards a workable new system were largely positive. We were pleased to have worked in cooperation with Councilmembers Evans and Allen, the ACLU, the NAACP, and other community public safety advocates to craft a bill that actually secured the approval of all the major stakeholders (to use the current buzz word), something that could not have been easily foreseen.

We were even more delighted when Councilmember David Catania spearheaded a successful lobbying drive on Capitol Hill to win $1.2 million in federal funds for the current fiscal year so that the new CCRB's operations can begin after the legislation clears the Congressional review period, which we understand will be sometime this month. Chief Ramsey's public support for the new complaint review system played a critical role in securing those federal funds. [We have since learned that the Congressional review period has in fact expired, and the CCRB bill is now law.]

We hope this committee will be more than vigilant in exercising its continuing oversight responsibilities for the new system, uncovering and hopefully helping to resolve any problems before they become fatal. For our part, GLAA and other community organizations hope to help the new system to get off on the right foot by offering our assistance with the Mayor's appointments of the five members of the new CCRB. We, too, will have to remain vigilant over the new system to help ensure its success.

But, as with most reform efforts required throughout District government agencies, it will take more than a single program to ensure that our residents get the most safety for their law enforcement dollars without sacrificing the freedom and peace of mind of honest citizens. The ongoing community and sensitivity training now being conducted for all officers (including training in maintaining good relations with our gay and lesbian community) is of course another vital component of a comprehensive reform program. But the challenge facing Chief Ramsey and the entire Metropolitan Police Department is more deep-rooted and far-reaching than what has been publicly acknowledged so far.

We have seen too many instances in the District of Columbia where the behavior of police officers is so high-handed and counterproductive that it seems to reflect the persistence of the paramilitary model of police work. The philosophy of this paramilitary mindset is bluntly epitomized in the motto of one New York City police unit: "We Own The Streets." While we would never suggest that our police force has sunk to the level of New York's, the Army-of-Occupation attitude is already too deeply entrenched here.

The paramilitary model is the polar opposite of the "community policing" model that Chief Ramsey has vowed to implement here. The community policing model recognizes that true and lasting public safety requires a cooperative relationship between the police and the community they serve, rather than an adversarial one. While we applaud the Chief's efforts to date, an effective shift in the Department's corporate culture will require the community policing philosophy to be reflected throughout the MPD — in budgeting, programs, assignments, performance standards, evaluations, promotions, and so forth.

The Council must exercise great vigilance in overseeing the Department's operations with the community policing model in mind. For our part, we in GLAA will continue to seek cooperation with the police wherever possible, and to hold both the Department's and the Council's feet to the fire.

Before moving on, I want to remind this committee of our opposition to legislation introduced in the last Council session at the behest of Chief Ramsey that would forbid police officers from working at ABC-licensed or sexually oriented establishments in their off-duty hours. We were joined by many others in opposing this idea during this committee's hearings on the proposed ban last November. We were glad to hear Chief Ramsey indicate at that time that he could live with whatever decision the Council made. We hope the idea will not be resurrected in this Council session because the proposed ban would seriously compromise the safety of patrons at a number of gay businesses without providing any real advantage to anyone.

Prison-Related Issues

My final topic today will be the negative impact that the federalization and privatization of the District's corrections system are having, or may soon have, on gay, lesbian, and transgendered inmates, and on those who have AIDS or who are HIV positive.

Through its leadership in the Condom Availability Coalition, GLAA spearhead the successful effort several years ago to get a condom availability program implemented in D.C. jails and prisons, as a means to combat the spread of AIDS within the prison population. That program is very much in jeopardy because we no longer control our own correctional system. Federal prisons have no such programs, some states such as Ohio have very ambiguous rules or statutes about such programs, and private prisons are seldom very far-sighted in this respect. We know that Councilmember Evans and his staff were very much involved with the issue of condom availability in our prisons and jails while Mr. Evans was chairing this committee, and we hope, Mr. Brazil, that you and your staff will continue along the same lines.

For the immediate future, the D.C. Department of Corrections should open a dialogue with federal prison officials so that the condom availability programs will be in place for facilities housing our prisoners. In addition, our contracts with private firms housing our inmates should require those contractors to operate a condom availability program. States housing D.C. prisoners should be lobbied to include such programs unless their laws clearly prohibit them. Even in those jurisdictions that do not allow condom availability programs, possession of condoms should not be treated, as it sometimes is treated now, as equivalent to possession of contraband, possibly resulting in longer prison terms or delayed releases.

In another prison-related area, we would observe that D.C.'s very strong anti-discrimination laws, which can and have been invoked to protect gay, lesbian, and transgendered prisoners from officially sanctioned abuse, have no counterpart at the Federal level and are duplicated in only 10 states so far.

We further note that the District's Agency for HIV/AIDS has been trying to push for improved services for incarcerated people with HIV or AIDS. On this same subject, we call your attention to the excellent front-page story about transgender activist Earline Budd, an ex-prisoner, in the current issue of The Washington Blade. As the Blade reports, Ms. Budd "wants prisoners with HIV and AIDS be given an adequate supply of medications when they are released so that their treatment will not be interrupted while they look for a doctor." We urge you to include these subjects in your oversight dealings with the fate of District inmates under the new regime.

Thank you. We would be glad to answer any questions.

[In the ensuing Question & Answer session, Councilmember Sharon Ambrose voiced her own appreciation for the Chief's initiative in having police recruits visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. She added that the persecution of gays by the Nazis is not a well-known story today, and the Museum is helping to rectify that problem. She also thanked GLAA for our participation in the efforts that led to the enactment of the new CCRB legislation last year.]

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