Ask Lambda Legal: Protected and Served?

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August 12, 2013
Beverly Tillery, Director of Community Education and Advocacy

Q: I was walking down the street the other day, and a police officer stopped me, and started asking me all these questions and was overly aggressive. I was very careful and cooperative, but suddenly felt unsafe. What should I do?

A: First of all, it sounds like you did the right thing by staying respectful. Police can have a lot of power over us, so in these situations it’s important to try to remain calm. Once the incident is over, try to remember everything in case you want to file a complaint with the police department.

Unfortunately, this type of incident is all too common. Throughout history, LGBT people and those living with HIV have been targeted by police for harassment and abuse. Lambda Legal has a long history of challenging all kinds of government misconduct through litigation and advocacy.

In 2009 in the case, Calhoun v. Pennington, the Atlanta Police Department dispatched dozens of officers to a gay bar, some even dressed in SWAT team gear. The patrons were subjected to extreme harassment. Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta, and reached reach a settlement requiring the police department to rewrite its policies on arrest, search and seizure, and also provided for a payment of $1,025,000 by the city of Atlanta.

Recently, Lambda Legal has been supporting efforts to end the profiling practices of the New York City Police Department that unfairly target people of color and LGBT people. In 2012, with the help of more than 50 partner organizations, Lambda Legal conducted a survey called Protected and Served? Survey of LGBT/HIV Contact with Police, Courts and Prisons. Of the more than 2,300 completed surveys, 25% of respondents with any recent police contact reported at least one type of misconduct or harassment. Respondents who were people of color, transgender, or low-income all reported higher than average instances of police misconduct or harassment.

Some of the people who responded to the survey had stories very similar to yours. Some people reported being detained for no reason, were physically or verbally assaulted—all because the police officer at the time seemed to hold prejudice against them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It will take many of us coming together and speaking out to end this kind of discrimination.

Lambda Legal has just launched a campaign to collect personal stories like yours, of instances where LGBT people, or people living with HIV, have felt discriminated against, abused or mistreated by the police or a government employee. One thing you can do today is share your story with Lambda Legal. Together, these stories will be used to strengthen our ongoing and developing work on these issues.

In addition, if you have any questions, or feel you have been discriminated against because of your gender identity or sexual orientation, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk.