Tommi Mecca still doesn’t totally trust the police. For years, Mecca said the police harassed him and others for being gay.
“I’m 61, and I grew up in a time when we got beaten up by the cops,” said Mecca, an activist and counselor for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.
Mecca’s mistrust of the police is shared by many LGBTQ people. As a result, members of the LGBTQ community are less likely to report crimes. That is why certain community activists have teamed up with the San Francisco Police Department to create safe zones for LGBTQs in all 10 police stations, hoping it will encourage them to report more crimes.
To help ease the process, each police station will have an officer available who feels comfortable taking on the role of an LGBTQ liaison. A safe zone sign, with a rainbow colored police star, is posted in the stations, designating them LGBTQ safe havens.
The idea for the Safe Zone project came out of the SFPD Chief’s LGBT Community Advisory Forum, a group of volunteer LGBTQ activists and organizers. The forum was formed about a year ago. The Safe Zone project was based on similar safe programs that have sprung up in police stations in certain European countries and from designated safe places, areas free from judgment and hate, located on most college campuses.
Community groups have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of serious crimes, including harassment, rape and burglary that target LGBTQs. Many of these crimes are never reported to police.
According to Craig Scott, a former member of the advisory forum, the number of crimes that go unreported in the LGBTQ community are “hard if not impossible to measure.”
There’s no hard data, most accounts are heard “word of mouth,” he added.
Guys hooking up on Craigslist and then getting robbed or sexually abused are common stories that Scott has heard. “It’s embarrassing for them,” Scott said, adding that people don’t feel comfortable going to the police.
“If something like that happened to me,” Scott said, “I would feel more comfortable talking to a gay cop.”
That’s where the LGBTQ liaison officers come in. Their job is to act in a nonjudgmental and helpful manner. Scott said when the forum was coming up with the liaison idea, they imagined them as interpreters. “We need more cops who speak gay,” he said, jokingly.
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a sexual violence awareness group that dresses up as drag queens, has members who pass out safety packets to people in the Castro on Friday and Saturday nights. The packets include a rape whistle, condoms and lube. They also go to bars and clubs warning patrons to watch for roofies in their drinks.
Scott Bray, aka Sister Eve Volution, said they’ve heard a lot of stories about older gay men being roofied at bars and waking up at home robbed. Bray said they were surprised and very concerned, especially since the alleged crimes weren’t reported.
“They seemed to laugh it off,” said Bray, about the men who said they’d been roofied. “They acted like it was a rite of passage for living in a gay metro area.”
Sexual crimes are even less likely to be reported. It is hard to know how large the problem is and whether the instances of people being drugged at bars lead to rape.
“The sexual thing is way underreported,” Bray said. “How many guys are willing to say ‘I was roofied?’”
The police are hoping to get better crime data now that safe zones have been established, Bray added.
The Mission District police station, which includes the Castro, has a Castro crime alert on their website warning people about roofies and to not leave their drinks unattended. Mission police Captain Robert Moser did not return requests for comment.
The Mission District reported 23 rapes in 2012, according to COMPSTAT data.
The Community United Against Violence, a LGBTQ advocacy group, put out a report last year that counted 141 incidents of hate violence. The data was self-reported by survivors of hate crimes. Of those reports, 54 survivors identified as gay, 15 as lesbian and 19 reported their gender as transgender.
Greggy Carey, a member of Castro Community on Patrol and volunteer with the advisory forum, said that some of the reason crimes against LGBTQs go unreported might stem from fear, “the fear of not being respected.”
Many people in the LGBTQ community don’t trust the police. Carey said the mistrust of the police has many origins. Some people moved here from other parts of the country that might not be as accepting as San Francisco and in their hometowns they had negative experiences with the police.
Others still remember the SFPD of 1970s and the White Night riots, where officers were known to harass and arrest gay men.
“There’s historic distrust between the LGBT community and the police force and in some instances it’s for good reason,” said Bray, who is also a volunteer for the advisory forum. “That mistrust doesn’t just go away.”
SF State history lecturer Sue Englander was at the 1979 White Night Rally, when the gay community protested the lenient sentence of Dan White, who killed Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. She said she went home before things got crazy. The police responded to the riots by beating and arresting dozens of gay people.
“The police have used the color of the law to harass and beat gay people,” said Englander, adding that “the cops haven’t earned the right” to have safe zones in their stations.
Mecca still remembers when, at age 19, the gay bar he was at got raided by the police.
“Luckily, I snuck out the back, but the guys who got arrested their names were in the paper the next day along with their addresses and their employers,” Mecca said.
Englander said that things have improved since those days for her and the LGBTQ community. There are even LGBTQ identifying police officers. According to the San Francisco Police Officer’s Pride Alliance, they represent about 200 LGBTQ local law enforcement employees.
Englander said that it’s all a step in the right direction but the police need to reach out more and then there might one day be a possibility to have a relationship with the police.
Mecca’s not so sure. He said the LGBTQ safe zones are just a bandage.
“I’m not big on symbolic steps,” Mecca said. “I think the cops have to be in the community showing the community that they really do care”
Bray admits that there is still work to be done. But he sees the safe zones as a huge success.
“If the safe zones can take down some of those walls and let the LGBT community know that the SFPD is not there to judge you, they’re there to help,” Bray said, “I will see it as an accomplishment.”