Making good on a promise by Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts after the severe beating of a gay East Baltimore man, the city Police Department announced Friday a special advisory council to help improve its relations with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The panel of activists, civil rights advocates and attorneys also plans to work to improve the atmosphere for gay and transgendered officers within the Police Department as it increases efforts to recruit from that community.
"More times than not, we find the most vulnerable communities throughout the city are the communities that have the most fractured relationships with the Police Department," said Alvin Gillard, co-chair of the council and director of the city's Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. "Until now, we haven't invested the appropriate resources to develop the trust."
Tensions have long existed nationally between police departments and gay communities, dating to wholesale arrests of gay bar patrons in the 1950s and 1960s and continuing to more recent allegations of law enforcement mistreating transgender crime victims.
High-profile attacks, including the Christmas Day beating of Kenni Shaw in his East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver, have revived questions about safety and the ability of police to aggressively investigate hate crimes.
Sgt. Eric Kowalczyk, the Police Department's liaison to the LGBT community, said Shaw's beating "created a sense of urgency" to create the new panel after Batts had floated the idea days before. Batts, who created a similar committee as police commissioner of Long Beach, Calif., appeared at a gay community rally days after Shaw's attack and promised his support.
In Baltimore, some activists say past police efforts have been more talk than turning points. Gillard said the new advisory council understands that and is intent on real, tangible change.
"It's great the commissioner has made this commitment, but I think the devil is really in the details," he said. "We need to make sure rhetoric turns into action in the community."
The 10-person advisory council, announced as the city prepares for its annual gay pride celebration this weekend, has been taking shape for months and is now in the process of compiling best practices for LGBT outreach from law enforcement agencies across the country, Gillard said. When that process is complete, the group will begin proposing new policies and training standards for Batts to consider implementing.
Roddrick Colvin, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the new book "Gay and Lesbian Cops: Diversity and Effective Policing," applauded the council's creation as a positive step for the department and the residents it polices.
"Improved policing comes from having a diverse police force," he said. "So if you want to be able to address some of the unique issues — whether they be hate crimes or some other issue — within the gay community, it's good to have officers who are at least culturally competent. And if you can get gay and lesbian officers, all the better."
In creating the council, Batts bolsters continuing efforts within the department to improve ties to the gay community — a nationwide trend among departments where liaison positions have led to LGBT police associations and support groups, Colvin said.
"The inclination is to think that this is happening in places like Baltimore, New York and Chicago, but you can find liaison officers all over the place, in Fargo, N.D., and in Texas," he said. "Departments all over the place are thinking about this."
Baltimore has had a LGBT task force in the past, and already has an LGBT training curriculum for officers. In his role, Kowalczyk, who has been openly gay in the department for more than a decade, has sought to maintain good ties with the gay community.
Now the department has high hopes for even more progress, he said.
Everyday interactions with the gay community, Batts and others believe, will encourage members to share more information with police when crimes occur. The council also plans to recommend policies to address ingrained homophobia in the department, which has left some officers uneasy about coming out.
"The silence is deafening," Gillard said. "We're hearing [officers] don't want to step out, don't want to be vocal, because it might come back to haunt them."
Aaron Merki, fellow co-chair and executive director of the Free State Legal Project, a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal services to low-income Marylanders, said that while many officers are open-minded, difficulties remain.
"They may not be hateful people, but they don't know how to interact with members of the LGBT community, particularly transgender people, often transgender sex workers, transgender women," Merki said.
Kowalczyk said the department's newly planned efforts to recruit gay and transgendered officers will help.