Detroit chat raises LGBT concerns, questions, resources

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Cynthia Pittmann still recalls the response her mother received from police when complaining in the 1990s about issues with a neighbor who criticized the older woman’s lesbian relationship.

“The police said something had to be done first before they could respond,” she said while speaking Wednesday during the Detroit Police Department’s second LGBTQ community chat.

Pittmann’s mother and her partner both were murdered before police intervened. But Officer Dani Woods, the department’s LGBT liaison, stressed that today, such concerns would not go unheard.

“Times have surely changed,” she said standing between tables with rainbow coverings. “We take even threats to the highest degree of sincerity. We don’t count anyone short.”

Resources available to the area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning community were the focus of event at Palmer Park.

Themed “Breaking Down Barriers,” the talk was designed to strengthen ties with the LGBTQ community as well as encourage individuals to report hate crimes.

“We’re committed to providing a safe environment for all residents,” said LaShinda Stair, Detroit police first assistant chief. “You are not alone and know there are resources and support for you.”

Gathering near Lake St. Francis, participants had a chance to ask activists and representatives from groups such as the Michigan Department of Civil Rights about what protections LGBTQ people have.

David Gelios, special agent in charge with FBI’s Detroit Division, said 2009 legislation has expanded the types of crimes authorities can investigate. He also stressed that shortly after the attack in June at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead, federal officials met with Metro Detroit activists and reminded them of plans to “investigate vigorously any violations of civil rights in the state of Michigan.”

There are efforts to update state hate crime laws to include sexual orientation and expression, said attorney Daniel Levy, director of law and policy at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Participants also discussed advances since the first community talk in August 2015, which followed two shootings in Detroit of transgender women. One, whom the advocacy group Equality Michigan identified as Amber Monroe, died.

Shortly after, DPD formed an LGBT Advisory Board, which Woods chairs.

The Wednesday session came nearly after a month after officials announced the Fair Michigan Justice Project. Headed by the Detroit-based Fair Michigan Foundation and including a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor as well as ex-Inkster police chief, the program probes and prosecutes criminal cases — including assault, homicide, carjacking and armed robbery — involving LGBTQ victims.

“We have an entire system in place where people can come and discuss what has occurred and see what we can do to work with police departments in Wayne County in order to facilitate a better system of justice,” said Dana Nessel, president of the Fair Michigan Foundation.

Since the project launched, she said, “unfortunately there have been a very large number of cases that have come in — a higher number than I expected.”

Among them, hours after the initiative’s announcement last month: a 23-year-old man who said he had a gun pointed at him and was subjected to gay slurs in Detroit. The suspect now faces prosecution, Nessel said.

The quick work highlights the project’s aim, she added. “I really think we’re going to see a change in how these cases are handled and I’m very hopeful that as a result … we’ll see a decrease in the number of hate crimes in our community.”

According to the Michigan Incident Crime Reporting online, of the 495 hate crimes victims reported in 2015, 12 percent involved sexual orientation.

Panelists also contended that although victims have in the past failed to alert authorities out of fear or mistrust, they now have reason to celebrate.

“We can feel comfortable coming forward and getting these crimes prosecuted so they don’t continue to happen now,” said Julisa Abad, trans outreach coordinator with the Fair Michigan Justice Project, who also sits on the police advisory board.

Gina Carter, a Detroiter who came out as a lesbian in her 50s, welcomed that stance.

“It should help bridge the gap so people can come and report some of those crimes, because they are happening everyday. People just aren’t reporting them,” she said after the talk. “The resources are there. We just can’t be afraid to use them and reach out.”