By Kendra Sitton
At local community planning group meetings, police representatives typically share announcements about shift changes and offer opportunities to have coffee with their team, but during the May 7 Uptown Planners meeting, San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Community Relations Officer David Surwilo used his time to speak out against a recent San Diego Union-Tribune (SDUT) article.
“The article doesn’t really reflect our city,” Surwilo said in the wake of the local report on a transgender advocacy group’s study that gave the SDPD low marks for its policies regarding transgender and nonbinary people.
Surwilo said that because the SDUT reporter reached out for comment on Friday, May 3, the department’s media relations officer was already gone for the weekend. The article was then published Monday, May 6 without comment from the SDPD.
Backed by a recent National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) report that claims many of the nation’s biggest police forces need to catch up to school and workplace policies regarding trans and nonbinary people, the SDUT article stirred anger and concern in the LGBT community immediately after it was published.
In response, City Councilmember Chris Ward said he would work with SDPD, trans and nonbinary San Diegans, and the San Diego LGBT Community Center (The Center) to address the needs of the community.
However, there is one major caveat to the NCTE study: it is based on what policies are made publicly available. SDPD said they have trained officers on how to interact with transgender people since 2014 in training bulletins entitled “Police Interaction with Transgender Individuals” and “Transgender Employees.” However, those materials are currently private.
In a statement, SDPD said, “We provide our officers extensive LGBT training in the police academy and continued ongoing professional training, which includes state-mandated training. All of this training occurs throughout our police officers’ careers.”
According to the SDPD statement, new officers tour the LGBT Center and representatives from The Center have visited substations to train officers on LGBT-related matters and cultural competency.
Uptown News reached out to The Center for comment but they did not respond to repeated calls.
The Neutral Corner, the oldest San Diego transgender organization still in existence, released a statement slamming the NCTE report as inaccurate. The group pointed out some of the categories SDPD received failing marks on are not applicable. For instance, the failing mark for Placement in Temporary Lockup is not accurate because the SDPD does not operate any detention facilities — they are under the purview of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
According to a representative of he Neutral Corner who attended a May 9 Community Leadership Council meeting, Jen LeBarbera, Education and Advocacy Manager for San Diego Pride consulted with SDPD and Ward’s office and released her own analysis of their policies, which only found SDPD failing in one category: civilian oversight. She gave them four cautionary marks where improvements could be made and gave them 12 passing marks.
SDPD touts its emphasis on community policing and engagement, especially through its community liaison officers. Surwilo is in charge of outreach to the Western Division, which includes parts of Uptown, but there are also officers dedicated to LGBT matters. The SDPD statement said the responsibilities of LGBT Liaison Lieutenant Daniel Meyer and Transgender Liaison Officer Christine Garcia “include being on call for the LGBT community 24/7, responding to and addressing LGBT-related community concerns, working closely with the LGBT Center/SDPride organization and many other community groups as well as managing a chief’s advisory board.”
For some members of the transgender and nonbinary community who have had negative experiences with police, the presence of these officers, as well as the training bulletins, have done little to mitigate the harm they face.
“They’re neither sensitive to being black or being trans,” Adrian Scott said. “They think because they congratulate themselves for having a trans cop that that’s enough. They need trans training, ethnicity awareness and general knowledge of the law training.”
Scott is a nonbinary individual who lives Downtown and has frequent interactions with police while riding the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS).
In an altercation two months ago over a $2.50 MTS ticket, Scott said one of the contracted Transit Security Services officers called them “sir” repeatedly while restraining them, at the behest of an SDPD officer.
“I said, ‘I ain’t no dude.’ The [SDPD] officer that was telling the MTS officer it was okay to restrain me, said something like, ‘Don’t care what you are. I’d put my hands on you too if you got in my face,’” Scott said. Scott, who identifies as neither male nor female, presents as more masculine but is still designated as female on their ID.
According to Scott, the MTS officer pushed them against an information board while other officers took their bag and wallet from their pocket.
“When they saw my ID, I heard two of them in the back joking about it,” Scott said. After being written a ticket, Scott said the confrontation ended “with one of them handing me back my ID with a smirk saying ‘ma’am.’ My friend thought I was going to get shot.”
The transgender and nonbinary communities also often overlap with groups that feel marginalized by police, including people of color, individuals with mental illnesses and other disabilities, as well as people who are low-income or homeless.
A local Hispanic queer man, who wanted to stay anonymous, told Uptown News he was the victim of police brutality in February 2012. His journal entries at the time of the incident detail being pepper-sprayed, dragged in a parking lot, slammed against a police vehicle and passing out. He said he did not receive medical care for his eyes and bruised body until being released from custody the next day.
The anonymous source did not identify as transgender at the time of the incident, but it has still colored his view of SDPD ever since.
“SDPD got away with what they did to all of us … Do we trust cops? No. They continue to intentionally use brutal force against our communities,” he said.
Ward’s office said details of a potential community forum or roundtable are still being worked on, as “Councilmember Ward wants to ensure that any guidelines developed or reinforced are modeled after nationally-recognized best practices and shaped by our transgender and nonbinary communities.” In addition, SDPD is working to make public the current training materials.
— Kendra Sitton is editor of Uptown News, a San Diego Community News Group publication. Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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