SoCal Justice Law Group Client, Survivor and Hero, Sofia Larios, Making Headlines
Updated: Jan 12, 2019
SoCal Justice Law Group client, survivor and hero, Sofia Larios, is making headlines.
PUBLISHED: January 10, 2019 at 3:35 pm | UPDATED: January 10, 2019 at 9:35 pm
Complaints from two transgender women who were housed on the male floor of the Long Beach City Jail have spurred local police to establish a new policy on the proper treatment of transgender people who’ve been taken into custody or who are encountered by officers in the field.
The new policy marks the latest move among law enforcement agencies in Southern California and elsewhere to develop guidelines to protect the rights and safety of the often-vulnerable transgender population in the criminal justice system.
Experts say the changes stem not just from an evolving awareness about the transgender community and the distinct issues they face, but also from the legal needs of police departments and other agencies seeking to safeguard themselves against costly civil liability.
“I think many law enforcement agencies, like many other institutions, are gradually recognizing the need and the importance of having procedures in place to make sure transgender people’s identities are respected,” said Amanda Goad, who directs LGBTQ legal work at the ACLU of Southern California.
Sophia Larios, a transgender woman who has sued the city of Long Beach, stands in front of the Long Beach Police Department in downtown Long Beach on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. The lawsuit alleges that Larios’ civil rights were violated, that officers called her “sir” and “it,” and that she was “groped” and forcibly undressed by male officers at the department and city jail following her arrest in August of 2017. The department adopted a policy that deals with the treatment of transgender individuals in September. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The in-custody treatment of trans individuals, who are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system and incarcerated, has been a longstanding problem throughout the country, she said.
“And historically, (they’ve) often ended up in unsafe and uncomfortable situations when they weren’t given a say in what would be an appropriate housing placement,” Goad said.
One of the recent Long Beach cases involved Sophia Larios, a transgender woman who alleges civil rights violations, negligence, battery and assault in a federal lawsuit filed against the city on Dec. 18.
Larios claimed a male police officer – after learning she had transitioned to a woman – groped her breasts and grabbed her genitals while she was handcuffed at the Long Beach Police Department headquarters in mid-2017.
That reportedly prompted her to knee him in the groin. Later during the booking process, officers allegedly called her “sir” and “it.”
A deputy police chief said arresting officers and jail staff misidentified Larios, who was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, battery on a police officer and disorderly conduct, as a male. But he contended the alleged groping was “consistent with a standard weapons’ search” that’s done during booking.
Larios alleged that the Long Beach police officer who groped her also needlessly revealed her transgender status – male to female – during booking to several other officers, who then asked her whether she had “a penis or a (vagina),” according to the civil lawsuit filed in U.S District Court.
After Larios, who is legally recognized as a woman, refused to undress in front of male officers, several of them “shoved her into a cell, held her arms, pushed her face-down and pulled her pants off of her” in the male section of the jail, causing bruising, the lawsuit claims.
“I was very disappointed and I felt betrayed at that time,” Larios said of the August 2017 incident, which she said resulted in nightmares and therapy sessions. “I felt that my rights as a transwoman were violated.”
Long Beach police Deputy Chief Richard Conant, who had not seen the lawsuit, said Larios was subjected to a male search with male personnel because she was misidentified as a male. But “no one is going to force anyone’s clothes off of them.” The bruising, he said, could have resulted from the handcuffs or the domestic dispute.
In December 2017, a transgender assault suspect also was placed on the male floor of the Long Beach jail in contrast with her gender identity, prompting complaints.
The two incidents, which Conant described as outside the norm for police officers of this diverse city, sparked internal affairs probes. They also spurred changes in department jail and other protocols in early 2018 and ultimately a new policy regarding transgender people whom staff encounter in the field and in custody.
“We wanted to make sure our employees got the training and direction immediately so this wouldn’t happen again,” LBPD Cmdr. William LeBaron said of placing transgender individuals in a jail area that does not coincide with their internal gender identity.
An acting police chief signed a special order in September in which all transgender inmates are to be housed in segregated cells on the jail floor that matches their gender identity. Also, body searches in the jails are to be conducted by a person of the gender that is preferred by the person being arrested.
Separately, police personnel must ask all transgender individuals they interact with how they prefer to be addressed, such as Mr. or Ms., or he or she, and call them by the name and gender they’ve requested.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction to provide policies they need and to be able to conduct their jobs professionally and respectfully,” said Porter Gilberg, executive director of The LGBTQ Center Long Beach, who added that ongoing law enforcement training is also essential.
With input from the Center, the Police Department is working on getting these changes and others related to LGBTQ communities incorporated into its policy manual, which can take much longer than a special order to implement, LeBaron said.
Separate and equal?
In California, some law enforcement agencies trying to address safety concerns are placing transgender detainees and inmates in specific housing intended to be more protective, such as in cells by themselves or in separate units for gay and transgender inmates.
“The problem with (gay/transgender units) is that it tends to be a separate and not equal housing arrangement,” Goad said.
An example of this occurred at a San Bernardino County sheriff’s jail where gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex inmates were locked in segregated cells for up to 23 hours a day and excluded from job training, education and other programs, she said.
An ACLU anti-discrimination lawsuit was filed in 2014 on behalf of people who were housed in two cells that were dubbed the Alternative Lifestyle Tank at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. A settlement between the parties, which includes more housing options for incarcerated people from these communities, was announced in August. It’s expected to get final court approval this year.
“Gay, bisexual and transgender inmates will now have equal access to programming, time out of (their) cell, work opportunities and the like at the West Valley Detention Center and in other facilities in San Bernardino (County),” said Brendan Hamme, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “It’s our hope the settlement agreement will be a model for jurisdictions across the country.”
Putting people in a protective setting because they are a member of these communities isn’t bad if every person gives informed consent to enter the unit and receives fair treatment once there, Goad said. “It can be an important form of harm reduction for some of the most vulnerable people in custody,” she said.
Thirty-percent of transgender respondents who were incarcerated in jail, prison or juvenile detention said they were physically or sexually assaulted by another inmate or facility staff in the past year, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, a federal law meant to deter sexual assault and abuse of inmates, requires prisons and jails to ask transgender and intersex people what kind of inmate housing placement they prefer and give these people’s own views serious weight, Goad said. (Intersex people are those born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit typical definitions of male or female.)
“Unfortunately, it’s been a long slog to get a lot of jurisdictions to really do that,” Goad said.
Civil rights advocates have applauded the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for its comprehensive policies in dealing with transgender individuals, including in the jails.
Transgender and intersex inmates are screened on a case-by-case basis in which their gender identity, outward appearance and the inmate’s perception of vulnerability are taken into account, according to policy.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department created a Gender Identity Review Board in 2016 for cases of incoming inmates who identify as LGBTQ or intersex and where it’s not clear to staff whether they should be housed in a male, female or segregated facility, said Karen Dalton, assistant division director for the custody division.
“We take into consideration where they want to be housed and we’re housing them in the safest place possible,” Dalton said, noting the department is revising its policies around implementing PREA.
DEFINITION OF TERMS
• Transgender: An umbrella term for those whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
• Gender identity: A person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender. Transgender individuals’ own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
• Gender expression: Outward manifestations of gender expressed through a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice or body characteristics. Transgender people seek to align their gender expression with their gender identity instead of the sex they were assigned at birth.
• Transition: Changing one’s birth sex, or transitioning, is a complex process that can include some or all of the following steps: telling one’s family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly one or more types of surgery. The process generally takes significant time and varies from person to person.
Source: GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization
The board, which meets at least once a month, includes sheriff’s personnel, mental health and medical professionals, community advocates and consultants.
Dr. Ariana Nesbit, a psychiatrist at San Diego Central Jail, said weighing the risks and benefits of each placement decision is sensible in light of data showing “unacceptable rates of sexual assault” when transgender inmates are automatically placed in county jail or state prison facilities that match their biological sex.
There are also concerns about automatically placing someone in a facility that matches one’s gender identity since some transgender inmates don’t want that, she said. There may be worries about violence or discrimination in these cases, too.
For example, “if a transgender woman says I prefer to be in a female facility but has a long history of sexual assaults of women, that’s where the individual approach makes sense,” Nesbit said.
Meanwhile, putting people alone in cells for protection – as often happens – has been correlated with worse overall mental health, specifically suicide attempts, she said.
“It’s really not good for people to be all by themselves,” Nesbit said.
Transgender views considered
In line with PREA standards, Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino Sheriff’s Departments also have policies that require transgender or intersex inmates views regarding their own safety to be given “serious consideration.”
In Orange County, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex detainees and inmates are assigned housing and programming on a case by case basis “after consideration of whether the placement will ensure (their) health and safety and whether the placement would present management or security problems,” according to that Sheriff’s Department policy.
Goad said that how such policies are carried out is critical. It’s possible, for example, that jailers could have “a knee-jerk reaction” to the presence of a transgender person on a unit as causing such problems. Or they could otherwise abuse their discretion and put people in involuntary segregated settings on a regular basis.
Until the last few years, nearly every county jail and state prison in California housed transgender individuals solely based on their genitalia, L.A. County sheriff’s Lt. Donald Mueller, the department’s primary LGBTQ community liaison, said. The fact that it’s no longer the case is “a huge change.”
Considering other factors “dramatically improves the safety for transgender individuals who have found themselves in a custody situation both by respecting them for who they are and providing them with a safer housing environment for them to do their time,” Mueller said.
Staff writer Megan Barnes contributed to this report.
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