But no matter how talented the officer assigned to the post, the LGBT liaison can only be as effective as the department allows that person to be. And by the time Atlanta police raided the Atlanta Eagle, a gay leather bar, last September, the department wasn’t letting its liaison, Officer Dani Lee Harris, be effective at all.
Harris was never told of the anonymous complaints that lead to the investigation, was never allowed to reach out to the bar owners to resolve the concerns, was never involved in educating officers on how they could conduct the raid without showing bias, and in fact only learned about the raid when she was called for comment by the LGBT press.
It was an epic fail, made only clearer when then-Chief Richard Pennington held a press conference in which he bragged about his appointment of the first LGBT liaison officer more than five years earlier as evidence of his “great” relationship with LGBT Atlantans — while those citizens planned protests that would draw hundreds.
Activists like Betty Couvertier feared a repeat of the Eagle omission when the LGBT liaison missed the May 6 gay rights rally at Grady High School. Harris told the Georgia Voice she didn’t go because she had been on medical leave since April 16, and the police department subsequently told us that Officer Patricia Powell had been appointed as a second LGBT liaison, fulfilling a promise from Mayor Kasim Reed, who inherited the Eagle debacle when he took office in January.
It’s troubling, though, that the department took no proactive steps to inform the community about Harris and Powell prior to questions from the press. And reaching Powell for a simple interview has been unnecessarily difficult, as Georgia Voice Deputy Editor Dyana Bagby documents in our cover story.
The APD did include LGBT press in a community breakfast with Powell on May 19. Like doughnuts, the gesture was sweet, but offered limited sustenance.
Several seemingly simple questions from attendees were left unanswered by the event — including how Powell and Harris’ duties will be integrated, whether the department really has the promised two liaisons since Harris is on leave, and whether the LGBT citizen advisory board still exists.
Moving beyond breakfasts, here are five ways the Atlanta Police Department can work to rebuild our trust in the LGBT liaison unit, and by extension, in the department itself:
1. Make the LGBT liaisons’ schedules public. It’s not uncommon for public officials to post their schedules online for citizens to see. Simply posting the LGBT liaisons’ schedules would go a long way to answer questions about “what they do all day.” It would enable constituents to keep the department honest on whether it really has two “full time” liaisons, and also allow citizens who know about major LGBT events to reach out in advance if they notice an event is not on either liaison’s schedule.
2. Give the LGBT liaison officers more exposure, not less. In the wake of the Eagle raid, the APD and mayor’s office seem to be trying to micromanage the liaisons’ interactions with the very people they are supposed to be liaisons to.
Such a strategy is usually an attempt to limit opportunities for mistakes, but it backfires and gives the impression that the department doesn’t trust the liaison to deal directly with the community or press without guidance from superiors or other handlers. Give Powell and Harris the freedom to do their jobs, and the community will likely be much happier with the results.
3. Create an independent LGBT advisory council. Although what appears to be an old application for the board resides on the department’s website, Powell said in response to email questions from the Georgia Voice that she “will be looking at a range of options to improve relationships between the APD and the LGBT community” and “an advisory board is one thing I’m considering.”
She is exactly right that for the board to be successful, “it’ll be important to have the right composition and duties for such a board.” The goal should be a board made up of diverse citizens who can advise the LGBT liaisons, help keep them informed on issues within Atlanta’s many LGBT communities, and funnel complaints or comments from citizens.
4. Involve the LGBT liaisons in all investigations dealing with gay businesses or organizations. This doesn’t mean no LGBT group or business should ever be investigated or raided: Our community, like all others, inevitably contains some bad eggs. But having the LGBT liaison involved in the process, and present on the scene, can help insure that people are not disparaged based on their sexual orientation, as allegedly happened during the Eagle raid.
5. Make the LGBT liaison available to work with LGBT people who are the victims or perpetrators of crimes. One of the LGBT liaisons should be on call at all times and available to other police officers dealing with crimes involving LGBT people — regardless of whether the crime was based on sexual orientation. LGBT people may fear the police, and having an LGBT officer present would create an image of the department as caring and inclusive.