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Courts / Law

Transgender Protesters Say Tampa Bay Law Enforcement Mistreated Them

Kai Robinson, a transgender protester who said police mistreated him.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI
/
WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA
Kai Robinson, 22, said law enforcement officers groped and misgendered him after he was arrested for trying to paint a Black Lives Matter mural in Curtis Hixon Park without a permit. Other trans activists have had similar bad experiences.

They were arrested after recent protests against racial injustice, and say the mistreatment further damaged their already fractured relationship with law enforcement.

Activists at nationwide protests against police violence and systemic racism demand justice for the deaths of Black Americans such as Tony McDade, a transgender man shot by police earlier this year in Tallahassee. But the protests themselves are resulting in more reports of police mistreating transgender people.

Reports of discrimination related to protest arrests have come out of cities such as Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa, where Kai Robinson, 22, said he had a bad experience.

Robinson recently returned to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa for the first time since he and other activists tried to paint a Black Lives Matter mural on the pavement in mid-August. It was to contrast the Back the Blue mural law enforcement supporters painted near police headquarters. Instead he and his friends were arrested by Tampa police officers.

“This is where they dragged me,” said Robinson, pointing to a large stretch of lawn between the spot he tried to paint on and the street. “It was a Black Lives Matter mural, but it also, the base of it, was going to be a [LGBTQ] pride flag, and they arrested a Black trans man at that.”

Police said they arrested the group because they were painting without a permit.

"I just needed her to stop"

Robinson ended up spending several hours at Orient Road Jail in Hillsborough County. He said some officers assumed he was a cisgender man, even though he told them he was trans, leading to a pat-down Robinson said was traumatic.

A female deputy grabbed his genitalia and recoiled, repeatedly asking Robinson, “What do you have on?” Robinson said he didn’t know how to respond and was starting to panic. He said the deputy asked another officer to assist her in the invasive search and grabbed him again, until he couldn't take it.

"Finally I was like, ‘Ma'am that's my vagina, you're touching my vagina, I don't have a penis as much as it may look like I do,’ ” he said. “Because I just needed her to stop at that point because I was really uncomfortable, and I have real trauma around that."

Robinson was one of seven people arrested that day, as was Julien Gibbs, 26. Gibbs, who uses the gender-inclusive pronoun they, said they too were mistreated.

Although they credited a couple of officers who tried to ask questions about their identity and be more understanding, they said most officers misgendered them and treated them with hostility.

Gibbs had to spend the night in jail because they had a prior charge from another protest arrest. They said they requested protective custody, which is essentially solitary confinement, because they didn’t want to stay in the women’s pod, where officers were trying to put them because of their genitalia. But Gibbs’ request was denied.

“Definitely the first time I got arrested I felt like I could be more assertive about it [their identity], but this time it was kind of like I didn’t really want to rock the boat because I was worried about the pending case,” they said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said the individuals haven’t filed complaints, but chief communications officer Crystal Clark said the agency takes allegations of mistreatment and abuse very seriously and is conducting an internal review.

“We strive to not only address the concerns and specific needs of our transgender inmates but also to treat everyone in our detention facilities with respect and dignity,” said Clark.

Jerrica Hoey
Jerrica Hoey
Jerrica Hoey, 31, said she was misgendered by law enforcement despite showing them her legal ID that reflected her identity.

"It hurt more than the rubber bullets"

That's not the experience Jerrica Hoey, 31, said she received at the county jail or with Tampa Police when she was arrested for protesting in early June.

Hoey was one of 67 people arrested for unlawful assembly in downtown Tampa on the evening of June 2, in what Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would eventually determine was a peaceful protest that didn’t merit criminal charges.

Hoey has changed her ID to reflect her gender identity and said she presented that identification to a Tampa police offer who updated her information in his computer as arrestees stood around waiting to be taken to jail. She got in line with other women, but said officers argued with her because they wanted her to go with men.

“I told the cop, ‘My gender marker on my ID says female, I’m legally a woman,’ and his response was, ‘Okay, you can be whatever you want but you can go legally stand with the males,’ ” said Hoey.

She said officers at Orient Road Jail continued to misgender her there.

"It hurt more than getting arrested or the rubber bullets or the tear gas,” said Hoey. “I was very composed until they [Tampa police] moved me from the female to the male line, that was when I broke down and started crying and everything.”

Educating law enforcement

Hoey also didn’t file a complaint. Tampa police say they can’t comment on her claims, but the department's LGBTQ liaison, Sgt. Robin Polk, said officers receive more inclusion training each year than is required by the state.

“We teach our officers on fair and impartial policing and internal bias that we don’t even know we have,” she said, adding that the department tries to go beyond a straightforward PowerPoint presentation to make the training stick.

“Rather than just checking a box, we’re actually training our people how to do the right thing,” she said. “And with the transgender community, a lot of times it’s just knowledge, like they [officers] don’t know how important pronouns are, they’re like, ‘Oh I just assumed that wasn’t a big deal,’ and it is a big deal.”

But Polk said Tampa Police Department doesn’t have written policies about how to engage with the transgender community.

“Our policies are basically to just treat everyone fairly, we don't like to isolate any one group because if I did then I'd have to have a policy on every single cultural, or different, um – so we don't really have a transgender policy or an LGBTQ policy,” she said.

But other law enforcement agencies in Florida do, such as the Orange County Sheriff's Office. There are policies that require officers respect the pronouns a trans person uses regardless of their ID and also ones to help transitioning employees.

“There should never be an instance where someone, transgender or not, is hesitant about reaching out to law enforcement for assistance, or should be worried they’re going to be treated disrespectfully,” said Lt. Brandon Ragan, one of four LGBTQ liaisons with the agency. "We represent all the community and we cannot do our job unless our community stands behind us and we stand behind our community,”

Reimagining policing

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative, part of the Humans Rights Campaign, said ongoing education is essential, as is recruiting and hiring more trans officers and holding officers who don’t follow protocol accountable.

“We can’t continue to tell people to do better and slap them on the wrist, particularly when they’re in law enforcement and hold so much weight in the eyes of the public,” she said. “If you are found to be treating trans people poorly there have to be repercussions for that.”

Cooper said it makes sense that the recent Black Lives Matter protests are also calling attention to transgender issues, because the challenges these communities face intersect and are deeply rooted in systemic injustices.

Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality with the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, agrees. She said she is encouraged to see the protests renewing conversations about police reform and the need for cultural change.

Duncan said the only way to make progress with racial and gender equity is to rethink the way policing happens in the future.

“Putting more money and resources towards a diversity and inclusion task force within a large law enforcement agency makes perfect sense,” she said. “Reallocating funds to ensure that law enforcement is engaging the LGBTQ community in that particular area and they’re truly members of the community. And frankly, the system needs to be retooled.”

Protestors, some of whom are calling to “defund the police” say significant structural changes need to happen in order to build trust with law enforcement.