Atlanta police want to sweeten relationship with LGBT community

Officer Dani Lee Harris, who has been the liaison for close to five years, was put on indefinite medical leave on April 16 after she suffered gran mal seizures months ago. No timetable has been given for her return.

Harris has also filed a complaint with the police department’s Office of Professional Standards and has hired an attorney. Because the complaint is under investigation, the APD cannot comment. Harris has declined to publicly speak about it.

Rafshoon, who served on the committee to make recommendations to Mayor Reed about a new police chief, was unclear if there are really two liaisons. Reed appointed George Turner as interim chief and Turner is a finalist for the post.

“I hope [Powell] can get out there — and if another [liaison] appointment is made, they can do the same thing,” Rafshoon said.

Our quest to interview
APD’s new LGBT liaison

• Friday, May 7: After learning about Patricia Powell’s appointment as the new liaison after the May 6 Grady High School protest, we requested an interview with her. Her boss, Major Erika Shields, sent an email on May 7, saying Powell would call on Monday or Tuesday.

• Tuesday, May 11: Powell called, but only to say that an interview request would have to be handled through the Public Affairs Department. A formal request for an interview with Powell was made to Sgt. Curtis Davenport, who responded that “we hope to accommodate your request by week’s end.”

• Thursday, May 13: Reese McCranie, deputy director of communications for Mayor Reed, sent an email saying, “We’re aiming to provide an interview for you possibly Wednesday morning [May 19] of next week. Would that work?” Asked for an earlier time, McCranie responded, “Due to scheduling and availability, it won’t be sooner than Wednesday unfortunately.”

• Monday, May 17: McCranie sent an email stating, “We’re introducing the new APD LGBT liaison to various community leaders on Wednesday morning. Can you please join us?” Georgia Voice agrees to attend, but repeats the request for an interview with Powell.

• Wednesday, May 19: After the community meeting, an interview with Powell was again requested. McCranie and Davenport both said that the roundtable was a meeting with the media.

• Friday, May 21: Georgia Voice emails questions to Davenport and McCranie on May 21 and again asks for an interview with Powell. An email to Powell herself asking for an interview went unanswered.

• Monday, May 24: Late in the day, answers to the questions sent May 21 were received in an email from Davenport with the subject: “Answers from GLBT Liason [sic] P. Powell.” McCranie called to say that Powell was in cadet training all day on May 24 and May 25 and that was why she was not available for an interview via phone or in person.

Does APD really have two LGBT liaisons?

At a breakfast roundtable on May 19 to introduce Powell to LGBT community leaders, officials within the department and the mayor’s office insisted there are two liaisons even though Harris is currently out.

Attorney Dan Grossman, who represents patrons of the Atlanta Eagle in a federal lawsuit alleging their constitutional rights were violated by APD officers who raided the gay bar in September, asked at the roundtable why Harris was not invited.

“You are taking credit for two. Do we really have two?” Grossman asked.

Reese McCranie, the mayor’s deputy communications director, answered that the breakfast meeting was to introduce Powell to the community and that Harris was not invited because she is on medical leave.

Harris, however, was angry to hear the mayor’s office claiming two LGBT liaisons when, she said, her superiors were keeping her from coming back to work.

“I didn’t know about the meeting [on May 19] and I want to say I was never relieved from work medically because my doctor said I can work, but APD is not allowing me to return to work and it is not medical,” Harris said.

Harris said Major Erika Shields, chief of staff to the Chief of Police, and the Personnel Department were not allowing her to return to work. The Personnel Department falls under the supervision of Major Debra Williams, the Corporate Services Section Commander.

Williams was head of the Red Dog unit that raided the gay bar the Atlanta Eagle last year and is now a defendant in a civil suit against the APD by several patrons of the bar who are represented by Grossman, Lambda Legal and the Southern Center for Human Rights. Harris, who was the full-time LGBT liaison for the APD at the time, was not informed of the raid until after it happened.

In response to questions submitted via email, Powell stated there are absolutely two LGBT liaisons working for APD.

“There are two LGBT liaisons in the APD right now. Officer Dani Lee Harris is on a leave of absence but we expect her to return to her duties soon,” she said.

“To clarify, Officer Harris has filed a complaint against a civilian employee of the APD, not the entire police department. That complaint is under investigation, so I can’t comment further,” she said.

Eagle owner: Damage can never be healed

Responding to questions during the community breakfast, Powell and other city officials who attended — including McCranie, Deputy Chief Ernest Finley and Atlanta Police Foundation Director of Programs Grant Hawkins — were not sure what Powell’s duties would be as a second LGBT liaison.

In her email responses this week, Powell gave a broad description of her duties.

“As the other LGBT liaison in the department, I have been tasked with producing a comprehensive plan to engage Atlanta’s LGBT community, including business leaders, civic groups and visiting with other individuals and venues,” she said.

Powell said she would look for input and recommendations from LGBT Atlantans to find ways to improve relations with the APD.

While Powell is apparently making the rounds of some gay businesses, there is one she has not yet stopped in to visit — the Atlanta Eagle.

“It would be nice if she put out the effort, but I don’t expect her to,” said co-owner Robby Kelley.

Kelley’s business partner and Eagle co-owner Richard Ramey knows police are needed, but feels the damage done last year in the raid at his bar can never be healed. In a March trial, charges were dismissed against several of the Eagle defendants arrested for license and permit violations. Others were found not guilty.

“Sept. 10 [the day of the raid] affected us a great deal, but we have moved on,” Ramey added. “I just hope they [the APD] will protect us — they put their life on the line, but I have to wonder how fast they react when they hear something happened at the Eagle.”

Kelley did say a couple of police officers who work in his bar’s neighborhood on Ponce de Leon stopped in after the Eagle raid last year to apologize.

“They said it just felt odd because they never had a problem with us,” he said. “Beat police officers have always been fantastic.”

Kelley also was disturbed Harris was off the force, at least temporarily, and said she needs to be reinstated.

“There is a huge, gaping hole in our community” and trust with the APD and city government, he added.

The federal lawsuit against the city and dozens of members of the APD continues to move forward, but the city is lagging in its responsibilities, Grossman said.

“At the present time we are waiting on discovery responses from the city attorneys.  We served discovery requests on both the city and each of the individual officer defendants on April 5, and under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure the responses were due on May 5,” he said.

Some gay businesses, groups have ‘wonderful’ relationship with APD

Blake’s on the Park, a gay bar in Midtown, has a “wonderful” relationship with the APD, according to Doug, a manager and bartender who declined to give his last name
The bar hires off-duty APD officers to work the door and provide security and it doesn’t matter if they are gay or straight, Doug said.

“We have a great [relationship]. Whenever we have issues, they always respond,” he said.

As a business owner in Midtown, Rafshoon also said he has a good relationship with the APD. Police officers stop in his store to say hi and shop.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I think the new appointment of a chief will be an opportunity for the APD to reestablish the relationship with our community and we can work together. Whoever it is [the next chief], things like the Eagle cannot happen again. There is a lot of strengthening of relationships and communications between the LGBT community and the APD that needs to take place.”

Over the past two years the level of trust between the APD and the LGBT community has eroded, said Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan, who represents District 6, which includes the Atlanta Eagle.

“Even though we have a liaison, it doesn’t feel like a partnership and there is no accountability. The Eagle [raid] really set us way back,” Wan, who is gay, said at the May 19 meeting. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The community needs to participate as well, Wan stressed, even by joining the Citizens Police Academy to see what police officers face.

But the community needs to see the police be proactive on LGBT issues because “the trust isn’t there,” he said.

JP Sheffield, executive director of Atlanta Pride, said he and his event have an ongoing positive relationship with the APD, which provides security — at a cost of some $50,000 — for the Class A event in Piedmont Park. Close to 100 officers work Pride each year, Sheffield said.

“They do an excellent job and integrate into our event and are the right officers for the queer community,” Sheffield said.

A liaison is necessary, Sheffield said, but that person should not be the only one who knows how to interact with the LGBT community.

“Some officers are more understanding than others,” he said.

Atlanta Pride is different than other smaller community organizations as well as individuals, Sheffield acknowledged, and because of its size, Atlanta Pride “sits in a place of privilege.”

“Even if there was nothing queer about [Pride], our experience is going to be different. My hope is a way for the community at large to have some of the positive interactions we are able to have,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be a long road for some of that to happen.”

What happened to the LGBT Advisory Board?

At one time, there was an LGBT advisory board that worked with the APD gay liaison. The APD website still has a link to an application for those interested in being on the board.

At the May 19 meeting, officials, including Powell, did not know if such a board still existed. Powell said this week she is looking into whether the board is necessary.

“I will be looking at a range of options to improve relationships between the APD and the LGBT community. An advisory board is one thing I’m considering. It’ll be important to have the right composition and duties for such a board,” she said via email.

Powell also said the APD “provides an 8-hour block on diversity training for all new recruits.”

“With my position as one of the city’s two LGBT liaisons, I am in the process of reviewing and evaluating training procedures and I will make recommendations to my command staff based upon those findings,” Powell said. She also said she would meet with all zone commanders to discuss how LGBT concerns can be addressed more comprehensively.

Zina Age is founder and CEO of Aniz Inc., a non-profit that serves people with HIV/AIDS and provides other health care services to disadvantaged people. She served on the LGBT advisory board for six years when it was formed under the first Atlanta Police LGBT liaison Connie Locke.

“The board kind of fell apart when [Locke] left and we were in limbo for two years,” she said.

When Harris came on as the LGBT liaison, the board was revived, Age said, but after Harris came out publicly as intersex in 2008, the board again fell apart.

“It was dismantled. We couldn’t even get it off the ground. We were supposed to meet once a month, but [the Atlanta Police Foundation] was trying to take it off the liaison and leave it up to the chairperson to organize,” Age said. “So we didn’t have the structure, we didn’t have the consistency.”

“It was really weird,” she said. “But I feel the board really is needed for the police department to be culturally competent.”

Atlanta police and trans people

One area that may merit attention is the relationship between police and transgender people.

At the May 19 meeting, trans activists Tracee McDaniel and Cheryl Courtney-Evans said there were problems with officers profiling transgender women as prostitutes and harassing them.

Sgt. Curtis Davenport, who is now head of the Public Affairs department, said he arrested a transgender prostitute because “he” was committing an illegal act. Davenport repeatedly referred to the person as “he” until McDaniel and Courtney-Evans stepped in to say calling a trans woman “he” is not culturally correct.

“A person should be identified as the gender they present,” McDaniel explained, with Davenport admitting he did not know that.

Sheffield suggested there should be a training course to deal specifically with trans issues.

Sheffield had special praise for Lt. Elder Dancy who has worked as security coordinator for Pride for many years. Last year, Sheffield came out as a trans man and had to go through the process of informing everyone he’d worked with in the past and knew him by a female name.

“He’d always known me as female with female pronouns and I only had to communicate it to him once and it was no problem at all,” Sheffield said. “He handled it fantastically and ensured others were using the proper pronoun and name. Those experiences are the kind the rest of the community needs to be having.”

Powell: ‘You have to prove yourself’

Powell is a senior patrol officer who joined the APD 11 years ago after moving to Atlanta from Evanstown, Ill.

She has served as an officer in Zones 1 and 3, the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and worked in the Atlanta Police Training Academy as a trainer. She also worked in the Recruitment Unit.

Powell was in the U.S. Army for three years and the National Guard for six years. She received her bachelor’s of science degree in Criminal Justice from Saint Leo University in Florida.

Powell said she has been out for more than 20 years and has two sisters who are also gay.

Tracy Elliott, executive director of AID Atlanta, asked at the May 19 meeting what it was like being openly gay in the APD.

“It hasn’t been a bad experience,” Powell said. “Number one, you’re a female and the police department is predominantly male, so you have to prove yourself. And when you’re gay … of course nobody says anything to my face, but you have people who aren’t happy with it.

“But my mother taught me to treat people the way you want to be treated,” Powell said. “And I’m kind of like a mother-figure in the department, especially with the recruits.”

Asked about the process of being hired as the LGBT liaison — which apparently included no direct input from the LGBT community — Powell responded, “I was selected because of my leadership qualifications and 11-year history on the police force …

“As an out and proud lesbian for nearly 25 years, I am especially delighted to be representing my community at the APD,” she said.


Top photo: Atlanta Police Department LGBT liaison Patricia Powell met recently with LGBT leaders at a breakfast roundtable. With her is Reese McCranie, the mayor’s deputy communications director. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)