Lambda Helps Gay Cops Strike Blow Against Anti-Gay Policy
(NEW YORK, October 5, 1998) -- In an important victory for lesbian and gay law enforcement personnel and the Puerto Rican gay community, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Monday that a federal judge has struck down a disciplinary rule that absolutely prohibits Puerto Rico police officers from associating with lesbians and gay men.
Lambda brought the case, Ramos v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, after the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) harassed lesbian and gay police officers during their 1995 convention held in San Juan. Members of GOAL, the Gay Officers Action League, had hoped to form a local affiliate to advocate on behalf of lesbian and gay law enforcement personnel in Puerto Rico.
The Federal District Court for the District of Puerto Rico ruled that the section of the PRPD disciplinary code known as Regulation 29 violated the First Amendment. Regulation 29 states, "It is a grave offense for police officers to associate with prostitutes, homosexuals, or other persons of dubious reputation." Police officers who violated this regulation risked official reprimands or even dismissal.
The court issued its ruling on Wednesday, September 30, but news of the decision was delayed by the effects of Hurricane Georges. In a 29-page decision, U.S. District Judge Hector M. Laffitte said, "The evidence in the record, including the testimony of police department officials and Plaintiffs' proposed experts, all lead to the conclusion that the rule is unnecessary....Therefore, the Court is compelled to hold that the prohibition in Regulation 29 against associating with homosexuals furthers no state interest and violates the First Amendment."
Lambda Managing Attorney Ruth Harlow said, "Regulation 29 made lesbian and gay Puerto Ricans pariahs to their own police force. The regulation's demise means that they can now expect equal access to members of their police department and to no longer be treated as outcasts."
"The court's decision exposes the fatal constitutional flaw of this absolute ban -- there is no justification for any law enforcement agency to prohibit its officers from associating with lesbians and gay men," said Lambda Staff Attorney Suzanne B. Goldberg. "Police officers and the communities they serve must be free to associate with one another," she added.
Heavy police presence greeted members of GOAL when they arrived for the convention. Some PRPD officers jeered and shouted anti-gay epithets. The PRPD also prevented GOAL from holding a short, symbolic walk designed to raise lesbian and gay visibility. In another incident, a squadron of police, in riot gear and with guns drawn, illegally raided a lesbian bar on the night of a widely publicized reception for the lesbian and gay police organization.
Along with their challenge to Regulation 29, GOAL and Dr. Rosalina Ramos Padro, a Puerto Rico lesbian activist who owned the bar at the time of the raid, also challenged the harassing incidents as violations of their first amendment rights and equal protection guarantees under the constitutions of the United States and Puerto Rico. The court ruled that the plaintiffs' challenge to the PRPD's interference with the symbolic walk must go to trial.
In a separate 22-page ruling, the court also ordered that GOAL and Ramos can go to trial on several of their claims regarding the 1 a.m. bar raid. The question for trial will be whether the officers had singled out the bar and its patrons for anti-gay harassment and to retaliate against GOAL and Ramos for publicly supporting lesbian and gay police officers.
New York attorney Colleen Meenan, who with Lambda is co-counsel to GOAL, added, "Our victory sends a clear signal to other police departments that they must treat the lesbian and gay community with the same respect that all communities deserve. Impeding the basic first amendment rights of police officers with such an across-the-board rule is unconstitutional, plain and simple. "
Carroll Hunter, a plaintiff in the case and GOAL's president when the confrontations with the PRPD occurred, said, "For years, we've worked under the rule's cloud and had to meet Puerto Rican officers in hidden locations." He added, "Now, GOAL can finally work directly and openly to help make the PRPD a better place for lesbian and gay criminal justice personnel, and better equipped to respond to its lesbian and gay constituencies."
Puerto Rico civil rights attorney Judith Berkan represents Dr. Ramos.
Now celebrating its 25thanniversary, Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
(Ramos v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, No. 95-1770)
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Contact: Suzanne B. Goldberg 212-809-8585; Peg Byron 212-809-8585, 888-987-1984 (pager)