Transgender people are getting murdered. Are police doing enough?

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At least six transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the past month and a half.

Violence against transgender people is receiving more political attention following the record number of killings of transgender women last year.

In 2020, at least 44 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed. Most of the victims were Black and Latinx transgender women, according to the Human Rights Campaign. (The term Latinx is a gender-inclusive way to refer to people of Latin American origin.)

It was the highest number of these deaths since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking them in 2013. Six transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been slain in 2021 thus far.

President Joe Biden made it clear last year that killings of transgender women were on his radar. During his presidential campaign, Biden spoke to Mieke Haeck, a mother of a transgender girl, at an ABC News town hall event in October. He said, " ... what's happening is too many transgender women of color are being murdered. They're being murdered."

On the campaign trail last October, Biden told Philadelphia Gay News in his first 100 days in office, he would "direct federal resources to help prevent violence against transgender women and transgender women of color." When asked about how the Biden administration would fulfill that promise, the White House Press office did not respond by deadline.

Advocates against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the criminal justice system say that the fight to end violence against transgender people can't be successful without also focusing on police violence.

JP Perry, staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she doesn't think police violence against transgender people gets as much attention as it should when advocates and lawmakers talk about the safety of transgender people. Perry is representing a transgender woman in her lawsuit against police in Watertown, New York.

"I think that we're encouraged that President Biden's recent executive order affirmed the Supreme Court's recent decision in Bostock on prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation," she said. "But we think that that is one piece of the puzzle."

According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 57% of respondents said they were somewhat or very uncomfortable asking the police for help.

A new lawsuit shows why experts say police violence has to be part of the bigger conversation around ending violence against transgender people.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a federal lawsuit last week on behalf of a transgender woman, DeAnna LeTray, who said she was harassed and sexually assaulted by Watertown, New York, police officers in 2017.

According to LeTray, after a dispute over rent ended with a landlord threatening her with a gun, police arrived to question her. Officers would not let her return home because they said, "We can't let you walk the streets looking and dressed like that." She was eventually charged with criminal mischief in the fourth degree and criminal possession of a controlled substance after police searched her purse. 

She was taken to the City of Watertown police station, she said. Officers put her in hog-tie restraints, told her she would enjoy being strip-searched, and drove her to a jail, according to the complaint. In the jail, a correctional officer performed a cavity search in an area of the jail that is usually only used for pat-downs, touched her genitals, and put his hands inside her multiple times, all while misgendering her.

Perry said that cases such as LeTray's "are not unique" for trans women's experiences in the criminal justice system.

"Interactions with the police and with jails are deeply traumatic experiences for anyone. But for transgender, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex people, these interactions also disproportionately result in harassment and violence, which is exactly what happened to Ms. LeTray," she said.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has several recommendations for how prisons and jails should change their policies, including providing a method for transgender people to report violations in those facilities.

LeTray is white. But Black transgender women, who often face the most violence, including police violence, have a particularly good reason not to trust police officers, TS Candii, one of the organizers behind the repeal of what was known as the "walking while trans" ban, says.

"When they identify us as being transgender or as most the marginalized, they know that it's OK to utilize their privilege and power as a weapon against us because we don't have a voice," Candii added.

She says people who want to keep transgender people safe from this violence need to advocate for the defunding of the police. "The reason for the argument for the defunding of the police is you have community liaisons and you also have the community affairs department. My argument is 'What do they actually do? Why is it always the officers with the guns who come out to assist in situations?'"

Candii says LeTray's lawsuit could galvanize people to organize against police mistreatment of transgender people.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.