BY MICHAEL BERLUCCHI
Departments in all seven major Hampton Roads cities have now appointed liaison officers to serve as a bridge between police and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people.
The latest to step into this role is police Sgt. Jessica Pennington in Newport News. This gives our region cause to celebrate another significant achievement in service of safe, free and just cities and neighborhoods.
Our organization, Hampton Roads Pride, is dedicated to promoting the inclusion, dignity and equality of all people. We’ve been working for the appointment of LGBT liaison officers in local police agencies since the Norfolk Police Department created the first local program in August 2015. Hampton Roads Pride – with our local, state and federal partners – has served a coordinating role to establish and support these positions.
In January, Hampton Roads Pride and WHRO presented a community town hall at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk. More than 300 people attended the program “Law Enforcement, Rights and Safety,” where members of the community and law enforcement professionals gathered to help establish and enhance vital bridges of trust and understanding. Since then, we have witnessed an incredible response from both the LGBT and law enforcement communities.
The relationship between the LGBT community and law enforcement is rapidly evolving in response to changing laws, policies and social perceptions about people who identify as LGBT. Hampton Roads Pride and law enforcement agencies are taking proactive steps to build a meaningful, ongoing dialogue. Communication means we are better able to serve our community together.
The appointment of LGBT liaison officers is not a new concept. Many of our nation’s most inclusive cities and communities implemented these important positions many years ago and have been reaping the many rewards of investing in strengthening community relationships as a result.
Liaison positions are sometime criticized as “special treatment.” I don’t agree with that characterization, but I would like to point out that liaison positions are not formal appointments. That means the officers who accept the role have other full-time responsibilities. The liaison role is one they accept because they are passionate about helping to create a culture where all people are safe and respected.
Officers are not additionally compensated for their work to enhance relations with the LGBT community. The positions benefit everyone because they make our communities safer. This past year, the Virginia Beach Police Department appointed Sgt. Shelly Meister as its LGBT liaison officer.
“The LGBT law enforcement liaison position is incredibly important because there is a historical mistrust for law enforcement rooted in the LGBT community and, conversely, there has been a lack of understanding from law enforcement,” said Meister, also the head of the Special Victims Unit.
This position has allowed Meister to bridge the divide and “bring clarity and trust” while building personal connections with citizens, a cornerstone of community oriented policing embraced by cities such as Virginia Beach.
“This country has a long history of using laws and police to further marginalize the LGBT community,” Meister said. “However, the law enforcement profession has expended great effort to extinguish discriminatory practices, and the appointment of LGBT liaisons into police departments just solidifies this philosophy.”
Responsibilities of LGBT liaison officers vary by agency, but they may include:
► Serving as a spokesperson for the organization to local LGBT demographics and representing LGBT interests to the leaders of the organization.
► Promoting equity and inclusion in the workplace.
► Functioning as go-betweens critical to bridging the historically deep divide between the LGBT community and law enforcement.
► Building mutual trust, respect, and understanding.
► Assisting, advising and consulting other officers on cases or situations involving LGBT issues.
► Providing training for members of the department on LGBT topics.
► Meeting with business owners, community groups and individuals of the LGBT community
► Attending events in the LGBT community as a representative of the agency.
► Identifying and attending training related to LGBT topics.
We are truly grateful that every municipal police department in Hampton Roads has appointed an LGBT liaison officer. Hampton Roads Pride is encouraged by the law enforcement community’s affirming response to the changing social and political landscape for LGBT individuals. We are committed to working with law enforcement agencies across Hampton Roads to ensure that everyone in our community is treated equally – with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Hampton Roads will become a safer and more equitable place to live and work as a result of the historic appointment of LGBT liaison officers across all seven cities.
This is a positive step forward for all.
Berlucchi is president of Hampton Roads Pride and community engagement manager for the Chrysler Museum of Art. He serves on the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission, the Virginia Beach Police Community Outreach Committee, Teens With a Purpose Executive Advisory Board and WHRO’s Community Advisory Board. He was recognized by Inside Business as one its Top Forty Under 40 for 2015 and is a member of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s class of 2017.
Hampton Roads Pride unites the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and allied communities in support of inclusion, dignity and equality of all people. The organization produces an annual festival in Norfolk that attracts over 30,000 people, hosts monthly meetings to unify and inform and presents educational programs throughout the year. Visit hamptonroadspride.org for information.
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