Charlotte murder prompts community concern

Community leaders speak out on media coverage, relationship with CMPD

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: May 1, 2010 in Cover Stories

CHARLOTTE — After news spread of the shooting death of a transgender Charlottean in early April (see “Info sought in Charlotte transgender murder” and “CMPD liaison conversations are needed), some community members raised concerns regarding the resulting media coverage and relationship with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

Roberta Dunn, who is transgender, first heard of Toni Alston’s death after local news reports of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) press conference regarding the investigation made it into her inbox. Some of the first reports were vague on details.

“My initial reaction was that there was some sort of covering up of a transgender person being murdered, trying to call it some kind of robbery,” Dunn told qnotes. “It didn’t make sense to me. Someone doesn’t come to rob you and not take anything. It just didn’t seem right.”

Among other concerns was the use of terms like “crossdresser” and “alternative lifestyle,” first uttered by police and the victim’s family members then later repeated by The Charlotte Observer and WCNC.

Dunn, who sits on the steering committee of the Mecklenburg Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), sees the misinformation as a call to education. So does MeckPAC chair Richard Thomas.

“Roberta brought to light information about this murder and what we want to do is start reaching out to our leaders and supporters and literally educating them on transgender issues,” Thomas said.

The group’s initial conversations regarding community education, Thomas said, were also spawned after the group interviewed 2010 primary candidates during their endorsement process.

“Several of the candidates we interviewed didn’t understand what transgender is, how it is defined and what obstacles there are,” Thomas said.

Sitting in an interview of a candidate for Mecklenburg County Sheriff, Dunn said she raised concerns about how a transgender person in custody would be handled. Thomas said those concerns extend to CMPD.

“How do they physically handle people,” he asked. “Do they put them in the general population with men or women?”

Thomas said a lot of the education issues could be solved if CMPD and other local law enforcement agencies had an employee tasked with working with the LGBT community and police department employees.

“There’s a lot of education that needs to be done,” he said. “A liaison would be extremely helpful. Somebody who is digging in and working with them to flesh out the issues.”

Other municipal police departments already have services for LGBT issues.

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In Washington, D.C., a 10-member LGBT staff of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit works to advise the police chief, officers and detectives on LGBT issues, offers safety training tailored to LGBT constituencies, provides support to other city agencies on law enforcement within LGBT communities, acts as a go-between for LGBT-owned/operated businesses and the police department and more.

In Atlanta’s police department, a one-person LGBT police liaison works on similar initiatives.

Laura Douglas-Brown, editor of The Georgia Voice, told qnotes having the police liaison position sends a strong and clear message to the community-at-large.

“Merely having this position sends a message that this is an issue the police department takes seriously and is a community the police department values,” she said. “That can be as important as any individual task the liaison officer might perform.”

But Douglas-Brown also thinks the Atlanta police have underutilized their LGBT liaison position and failed to fully integrate the staffer into the affairs of the department.

“It’s an excellent idea, but sometimes it has not lived up to its potential here,” she said, pointing to last year’s raid of the Atlanta Eagle. A federal civil rights lawsuit is pending against the city for alleged abuses by police officers toward gay Eagle patrons. Some have even called the Eagle raid “Atlanta’s Stonewall.”

Douglas-Brown said Atlanta’s LGBT police liaison wasn’t involved in planning the raid, hadn’t been used to approach the business to correct any possible violations before it occurred, wasn’t present at the raid and only knew about the incident after being contacted by local media.

“That’s not a criticism of the individual,” she said. “She can only be as good as the department allows her to be.”

Because of the scrutiny after the Eagle raid and its resulting lawsuit, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has promised to expand the liaison unit from one to two people and fully integrate them within the department.

“I believe in the approach of full integration, so the notion that an event like the Eagle raid would be done without [the LGBT liaison] being aware of it would be dealt with an appropriate level of severity,” Reed told The Georgia Voice in April. “That will not happen in my administration, and if it did, there would be dire circumstances as a result.”

Douglas-Brown believes Reed’s steps to expand and integrate LGBT police liaison positions will result in new, positive outcomes for Atlanta’s LGBT community.

“Certainly there is a real potential here with a new officer to head off these problems at the pass, so you don’t have that kind of stumbling [during and after the Eagle raid],” Douglas-Brown concluded.

Denise Palm-Beck, chair of Charlotte’s Lesbian & Gay Community Center, told qnotes she has been working on behind-the-scenes conversations with CMPD staff regarding a possible LGBT police liaison position. Because those conversations are only preliminary, she declined to say which officers and staff she’s spoken with.

“The first gentleman I talked to thought it was a good idea,” she said. “He was very helpful, but he was just not in the right department to be a true liaison.”

Palm-Beck said she’s turned to several existing relationships with CMPD developed over the course of planning for the Center’s Pride Charlotte festival. The annual event works closely with police each year.

“They are helping to find the appropriate people to talk to at a high enough level so we don’t have to wait forever for the possibility of dialogue,” she said. “They are willing to further this idea along by finding the correct people to get the idea in front of. I would imagine this is something the police chief would have to sign off on.”

Local attorney Connie Vetter, who once worked closely with MeckPAC and still keeps tabs on local LGBT legal issues, met with CMPD officials years ago after the 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. She told qnotes those conversations were positive and found that police officials were more than willing to hear concerns from LGBT community members.

Vetter’s past positive experiences and Palm-Beck’s current conversations could result in tangible results. MeckPAC committee member Dunn said the community is ready for a police liaison position.

“The LGBT community here is very strong in Charlotte,” she said. “We have a great Center. We have lots of business establishments that are supportive. We have a PAC for LGBT issues. I haven’t seen that in a lot of other cities.”

If an LGBT liaison is created for CMPD, Dunn said she’d like to see monthly meetings with the community. Such meetings would help further her and MeckPAC chair Thomas’ goals for community education. And, even if the position isn’t permanent or full-time, Thomas said it will create a positive impact.

“Whether or not we need something on a permanent basis depends on how well these initial actions take root,” he said. “I think there is real value and importance in looking into such a liaison position. It will be interesting to talk to the police department and Sheriff’s office to get feedback. An initial meeting with leaders would be valuable for takeaway as far as next steps.”

In an April 20 email to about a dozen community leaders, Palm-Beck said she would work to keep community members up-to-date on her conversations with police officials.

“I will update all on the progress with the liaison, and there is progress,” she wrote. “As soon as I learn of a definite person who will take the lead for the Police Department, I will let all know. I will pursue this with vigor.”

Until then, Palm-Beck remains positive and told qnotes the Center stands behind efforts to reach out to public officials. “We are clearly behind this education process. I really think, I believe, people want to know, try really hard to understand.” : :

Read Matt Comer’s Editor’s Note: CMPD liaison conversations are needed.

Charlotte skyline photo courtesy James Willamor. Licensed under CC.