Vargas: How will the new police chief engage with the LGBTQ+ community?
San Jose Police Department headquarters. File photo.

San Jose officials in March appointed Anthony Mata to be the new chief of police. His selection became controversial almost immediately, as community leaders raised concerns about his involvement in a police shooting and his treatment of a transgender officer.

LGBTQ+ people have always had a difficult relationship with the police. The most famous LGBTQ+ uprisings were a response to police violence. The Stonewall Riots occurred in response to a police raid, where police launched an unprovoked attack on an LGBTQ+ bar in Greenwich Village, beating and sexually assaulting some patrons.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco occurred when a business owner called the police on a group of peaceful transgender patrons. When the police arrived a scuffle between an officer and transwoman resulted in the police savagely beating a number of the women in what other officers on the scene called completely “unnecessary violence.” Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria brought an end to two decades that historians have called the “most homophobic period in American history.”

Despite significant social progress since then, the LGBTQ+ community’s distrust of the police remains, a distrust that is not without justification. According to the 2020 National Crime Victimization Survey, 48% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and 58% of transgender people have experience police misconduct. These experiences are compounded for LGBTQ+ people of color, who are far more likely to experience police violence than white LGBTQ+ people.

The San Jose Police Department has a particularly concerning history with the LGBTQ+ community. In 2014 and 2015, the department conducted a “gay sex-sting” operation that selectively and unlawfully targeted gay men for “lewd conduct” in a public park, for which the city was forced to pay a $125,000 settlement to five of the men. One of the falsely accused men reported that the police made homophobic remarks toward and about him during the arrest. In 2020, the SJPD was hit with two more lawsuits claiming that after-dark parking and sex worker laws were selective enforced against LGBTQ+ individuals.

These specific issues are compounded by the SJPD’s recent misconduct allegations surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests. During the summer of 2020, the SJPD was universally panned for its response to the BLM protests, including the viral video of Officer Jared Yuen, officers posting racist comments on Facebook, and SJPD officers using non-lethal weapons to injure a prominent local political leader and the department’s own bias trainer. The SJPD only fanned the flames of these scandals when it released a revisionist report that attempted to make out the protestors as violent “rioters.”

On LGBTQ+ issues, the SJPD has made a number of policy changes in the past decade in an effort to repair its relationship with the community.

In 2019, the SJPD announced the creation of an LGBTQ+ community liaison, who would provide a permanent conduit between the community and the department. Since then, the department has launched the SAFE PLACE program, continued to conduct their LGBTQ+ specific hiring campaign and rolled out rainbow flag patches in order improve visibility. In February 2021, the SJPD also announced it would be “modernizing” its duty manual to be inclusive of transgender people and implementing additional “sensitivity trainings” for officers.

Chief Mata is stepping into the leadership of a department struggling to find a firm footing with a number of key communities. The allegations against him have made many in the LGBTQ+ community particularly wary of him, but the reality is that we simply don’t know that much about the new chief or his plans for the department beyond the glittering generalities from his roll out speech.

This creates the opportunity for real, good faith engagement between the LGBTQ+ community and the new chief, where he can reassure the community of his intentions and we can ask important questions. Will he deprioritize non-violence misdemeanors like other cities, which has resulted in a significant drop in overall crime? Will he be an active participant in the process of removing police from schools? Will he support community-based policing strategies? Will he engage productively with the Independent Police Auditor and support more community oversight? How will he respond to rises in anti-Asian, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-Semitic violence?

All of these questions are important for the safety and security of LGBTQ+ people in San Jose, and we need answers.

The community should be open to good faith engagement, despite its justified concerns and reservations, and I hope that the new police chief will allay those concerns by coming to the table with a commitment to listening, learning and engaging with our community as well.

San José Spotlight columnist Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce. His columns appear every second Thursday of the month.

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