Detroit police, LGBTQ ties stronger than in past

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The relationship between the Detroit Police and the city’s LGBTQ community got stronger in the past year and this week each side will take an assessment of just how their ties can grow.

On Wednesday, the police department holds its second LGBTQ Community Chat in Palmer Park to get a progress report from the community and for the department to outline adjustments it has made based on feedback from the LGBTQ community.

Lilianna Angel Reyes, program services director of Affirmations, the LGBT community center in Ferndale, said she didn’t hear about last year’s community chat until the day of the event, when she was asked to speak on a panel.

Since then the landscape has changed, Reyes said.

She noted that a month after the first community chat, the department created the LGBT Advisory Board, chaired by Officer Dani Woods, the liaison to the LGBT community. Reyes said the board gives the LGBTQ community a voice, even when the two sides can’t agree.

“There are no perfect partners,” Reyes said, “but it’s all about accountability.”

In early July, the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a public-private partnership between the Fair Michigan Foundation and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, began investigating and prosecuting cases in which the LGBTQ community has been targeted.

Within 12 hours of a press conference announcing the project, a 23-year-old man had a gun pointed at him and was taunted with gay slurs on Detroit’s west side. After learning of the incident, the justice project helped connect the victim with police, said Dana Nessel, president of the organization.

The suspect, Stephen Edwards, 20, is being prosecuted. Nessel said Jaimie Powell Horowitz, a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor who is a special prosecutor with the Justice Project, will try the case.

Nessel said she has been surprised by the frequency of crimes targeting the LGBT community, and that tips have been coming in regularly since the organization announced its presence. Some are for cold cases where new information hadn’t been discovered in a year or more.

“I had no idea how many cases there were,” Nessel said. The workload has Fair Michigan considering a staff expansion, less than a month from its launch.

Hate crimes related to LGBT people in Detroit this year are “in the single digits,” Woods said, adding that such crimes also tend to go under reported.

Police can only solve the crimes they know about, said Woods, a lesbian who marched in the city’s Pride parade in June dressed in full uniform hours after a mass shooting inside a gay nightclub in Oralando.

Woods both understands where the suspicion of police comes from and tries to convey how far things have come. Wednesday is another opportunity.

If last year’s event provided a baseline of where things stood — including plenty of “good, angry feedback” — Wednesday will be a progress report, Woods said. The department, she said, will explain adjustments it has made based on last year’s feedback.

Palmer Park is an example of the fine line Detroit police walk between protecting the women who work the streets and enforcing the law, which sometimes means arresting those women, Woods said.

The stretch of McNichols from Woodward headed east to Nevada is a known prostitution hot spot, Woods said. Women working those streets face not only “the danger of the unknown,” as Woods called it, from johns who may have ill intent, but also the risk of being busted by police.

The dangers on both sides can lead those who work in the area to feel “picked on,” and not particularly trusting of the police, Woods said.

Woods described herself as a “translator” who can explain LGBT concerns to police — why members of that community might shy away from calling 911, for instance — and the police perspective — “this is a crime; we have to enforce the law,” Woods said of prostitution — to those in the LGBT community who ask that sex workers be protected but not policed.

It’s tough to make everybody from both groups happy, Woods said, but having a level of basic trust is important.

“When crimes occur, the neighborhood knows before the police do,” Woods said. “Somebody has to call us and tell us what happened. When nobody knows and nobody wants to be involved, that hurts investigations.”

LGBTQ Community Chat

What: Detroit Police Department and the Detroit Public Safety Foundation's 2nd Annual LGBTQ Community Chat

Where: Palmer Park 19301 Woodward Avenue. The meeting will be outdoors under a tent.

When: Wednesday, Aug, 3 at 6 p.m.