GLAA sees progress, challenges at Office of Human Rights
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GLAA on Human Rights

GLAA sees progress, challenges at Office of Human Rights


GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013

TESTIMONY ON OVERSIGHT & PERFORMANCE HEARING
D.C. OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Before the Subcommittee on Human Rights

MARCH 8, 2003


Councilmember Graham and Fellow Residents:

Good morning. My name is Craig Howell. I am a former President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), now specializing in issues surrounding enforcement of the District’s landmark Human Rights Act of 1977. With me is another former GLAA President, Rick Rosendall, who now serves as our webmaster and Vice President for Political Affairs.

GLAA is not only the District’s but the nation’s oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights group, having been founded in 1971. We will be celebrating our 32nd anniversary with a reception on Tuesday evening, April 15, at the Radisson Barcelo Hotel. The highlight of that gala will be the presentation of GLAA’s Distinguished Service Awards (you have earned one of these previously, Mr. Graham) to a number of worthy recipients, including your colleague, Councilmember Kathy Patterson.

We are pleased to have an opportunity to testify this morning, especially since we have more to be grateful for than to complain about when it comes to the performance of the Office of Human Rights (OHR) and, more broadly, when it comes to the District’s enforcement of and respect for the Human Rights Act.

We continue to be favorably impressed with the leadership and vision of the Office’s Acting Director, Nadine Wilburn. The Administration has still failed to come up with a coherent explanation for its abrupt dismissal of her predecessor, Charles Holman III, last June. Yet the good work that Mr. Holman performed during his tenure has served as a solid foundation for further progress under Ms. Wilburn. The Administration deserves respect for appointing Ms. Wilburn as OHR’s Acting Director and for supporting her efforts, especially in securing compliance with the Mayor’s Orders concerning uniform use of language in the non-discrimination policies in all District government agencies.

We are gratified but not surprised that OHR received high marks in the FY 2002 Performance Accountability Report. To quote from the Report’s summary: “OHR significantly exceeded two targets and met three targets for the five performance measures…. Overall, the agency exceeded expectations.” These marks redound to the credit of Mr. Holman, Ms. Wilburn, and the Administration alike.

We are especially happy with the agency’s progress in reducing its backlog. At the end of FY 2002, the backlog (defined as cases pending more than 180 days) stood at 383 cases, down from 487 cases at the end of FY 2001 and 559 cases at the close of FY 2000. The agency’s target is to reduce this number to just 300 cases at the end of the current fiscal year, and to 200 cases at the close of FY 2004. We believe these vital goals can be met, provided that the Administration and the Council provide the proper budget support.

There has been some slowdown in the current fiscal year, however. As of the end of February, the backlog stood at 383 cases--precisely where it had been as of September 30, five months earlier. Further progress in reducing the backlog depends upon maintaining the original budget.

Progress has also stalled, if only temporarily, with securing greater agency compliance with the Mayor’s Order on uniform language in anti-discrimination policies. Enormous progress on this front was demonstrated at this committee’s oversight hearings last fall, one of the most gratifying hearings I’ve ever personally witnessed in my three decades of activism. The one problem with last October’s hearing was that only half the agencies were then in compliance. A letter from OHR was supposed to go out soon thereafter, prodding the other agencies to get with the program. That has not yet happened. Fortunately, Ms. Wilburn expects that letter should go out within the next week or so.

To give you an example of how Ms. Wilburn always seems to be one step ahead of me, I suggested to her earlier this week that the agency’s list of numerical targets, used in compiling the annual Performance Accountability Report, should be expanded to include a measure of the percentage of agencies in compliance with the Mayor’s Order. She informed me that such a measure has already been agreed upon to be incorporated into the FY 2004 Report.

As another example of Ms. Wilburn’s ability to stay ahead of the curve, I asked her if anything had been done to get a downloadable version of OHR’s poster on non-discrimination, which firms in the private sector could print out to post in their own workplaces, onto the OHR web site. I also pointed out a few problems with some of the agency forms shown on the OHR web site. She was already aware of those problems and had asked the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO--you can learn a new acronym every day around here, if you’re not careful) some time ago to get that poster onto their web site, and more recently to fix the problems with those forms. She’ll have to lean on OCTO some more to get these jobs done, but once again, she’s on the ball.

I’ll cite one final example of a useful change instituted by Ms. Wilburn. Previously, the intake officer had the right to reject a complaint at the intake meeting with a complainant, and there was no mechanism for a complainant to appeal that ruling. Now, Ms. Wilburn insists on personally reviewing every such rejection, to make sure that no plausibly valid complaint is aborted prematurely. OHR currently averages 40 new cases a month, of which 15-18 are typically rejected by the intake officer; those are now reviewed individually by Ms. Wilburn.

With your indulgence, Mr. Graham, we would like to expand our testimony this morning to address a number of issues connected with the attitude of our Fire and Police Departments towards the principles embedded in the Human Rights Act. Most of our comments today will be positive, reflecting a number of constructive steps taken by these agencies or by the Council over the last year to resolve some longstanding headaches. Those problems that remain outstanding will also be cited, in hopes of securing the Subcommittee’s productive intervention where appropriate.

One of the most recent and most encouraging developments has been the Fire/EMS Department’s hiring of an open lesbian, Ms. Kenda Kirby, as a specialist for human diversity training. Several of us know Ms. Kirby fairly well, and we are convinced she will be an effective trainer as long as the Department gives her its full support. You will recall that several years ago the Department had named its diversity training program in honor of Tyra Hunter, the late transgendered D.C. resident who was so shamelessly mistreated by Department staff in that scandalous August 1995 incident that triggered lengthy litigation, resolved in August 2000. Soon thereafter, the Department suspended the training program altogether, ignoring our community’s fervent protests. We welcome the hiring of Ms. Kirby and the reinvigoration of the diversity training program as a sign that human rights will be treated seriously by the Department's new Chief, Adrian Thompson.

One problem Chief Thompson has inherited after former Chief Ronnie Few’s unlamented departure is the Department’s grooming policies, promulgated and defended in gratuitous defiance of the Human Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of personal appearance. A temporary injunction has been issued by the federal courts prohibiting the enforcement of the policy, as it probably violates the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion. GLAA has proposed amendments to the policy which would base it on objective and industry-standard safety tests instead of the mere appearance of safety, as with the current policy.

As you know, Mr. Graham, we in GLAA have a strong interest in the enforcement of the “personal appearance” section of the Human Rights Act, because that section is the basis of the broad legal protections enjoyed by the District’s transgendered community. The rest of the country is only now, three decades later, beginning to catch up with us in this respect, and we will not tolerate any short-sighted actions to undercut those protections by our own government agencies.

Our Metropolitan Police Department has made great strides in advancing equal treatment for the gay and lesbian community, thanks in large part to the good work of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) -- another recipient of GLAA’s Distinguished Service Award this year. But recent events have uncovered a serious gap in Police Chief’s Charles Ramsey’s often-repeated assurance to our community that his Department will not tolerate the presence of bigoted officers.

Last summer, there was a serious incident where Master Police Officer Hiram Rosario launched into a viciously homophobic and threatening tirade against Scott Fike, an openly gay police officer, in front of a dozen witnesses. Since we had not heard how the Department had handled the resulting complaint against MPO Rosario, GLAA’s recent testimony to the Judiciary Committee raised the issue. You picked up on our concerns, Mr. Graham, and got Chief Ramsey to report that Rosario had indeed been found guilty and had been demoted and reassigned to another area of the city. While this solution may look impressive to some, it certainly fails to satisfy us.

In another recent incident where another officer, Lt. Ricki Leonard, had verbally abused an Hispanic family because the father did not speak English, MPD responded to the public outcry by reassigning her to a different part of the city. Mr. Graham, you quite properly took the Chief to task during his testimony to the Judiciary Committee, pointing out that Latinos may be found throughout the District, and that no one should be exposed to the danger of being abused again by Lt. Leonard. On the spot, the Chief ordered her off the streets entirely and reassigned her to desk duty.

At the very least, Rosario should be taken off the streets as well, since gay men and lesbians live throughout the city. More fundamentally, why can’t the Department fire unfit officers like Rosario and Leonard for cause, especially since both are repeat offenders? We note that the Chief plans to dismiss a number of officers for their responsibility in the recent Dupont Circle 911 fiasco, so police evidently can be fired under some circumstances. Whether the problem lies with the law, provisions in the union contract, or timidity in top management ranks, the Council should investigate and take appropriate remedial action. We called for an investigation of the Rosario incident by the Judiciary Committee and this Subcommittee last summer. Such an investigation remains very much in order, with a wider mandate to determine both the sources and a workable cure of the problem.

We believe the Rosario incident, coupled with the revelation of a number of homophobic e-mails that were uncovered during the recent investigation of a large number of biased and inflammatory e-mails issued by various members of the police force, emphasize the need for the Department to resume the diversity and community training of veteran officers by independent, openly gay or lesbian trainers. Currently, only rookies and transfers receive such training from Karen Pettapiece, an openly lesbian professional trainer with a background in law enforcement. Clearly, the veterans need such training at least as much as the new kids on the block.

Finally, we also want to take this opportunity to repeat our request from last year for the Metro Board of Directors to take direct action to correct an outrageous claim by Metro’s lawyers that the agency is exempt from the D.C. Human Rights Law because they enjoy sovereign immunity as a governmental entity. Metro’s lawyers have already used this spurious argument to defend the agency from lawsuits raised under federal civil rights laws by elderly customers. After receiving our note about this problem, Mr. Graham, you quickly sent a letter to Metro General Manager Richard White, requesting clarification of this matter. But as far as we know, Mr. White never bothered to respond.

It is utterly hypocritical for Metro to brag that they follow a broad policy of non-discrimination if they claim they are exempt from any effort to enforce their own policy -- and District law -- in court.

We in GLAA had a parallel problem for many years with the District’s Office of the Corporation Counsel (OCC), which had repeatedly employed some bizarre interpretations of the Human Rights Act so that the District could escape liability for violating it; the most notorious example of OCC’s recalcitrance was their mishandling of the suit brought by Tyra Hunter’s mother. Under your leadership, Mr. Graham, the Council solved this long-festering problem as one result of your enactment of the Human Rights Act Amendment Act of 2002, which spelled out unmistakably what we knew the law had intended all along.

Similarly, nothing short of a direct order formally enacted by Metro’s Board of Directors will prevent their General Counsel’s office from thumbing their noses at our anti-discrimination laws in the name of “sovereign immunity.” Since you are Chairman of the Metro Board this year, Mr. Graham, I’d have to say you enjoy excellent field position for resolving this matter with finality.

Thank you for your attention. We would be happy to answer any questions.


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