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|Atlanta Police works to erase 'negative image' among LGBT residents|
|Written by Dyana Bagby|
|Thursday, 14 April 2011 08:49|
The Atlanta Police Department sent in top brass to discuss the new APEX Unit that replaces the controversial Red Dog Unit as well as ways the department hopes to erase its bad reputation among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.
More than a dozen APD officers, including the LGBT liaisons and members of the new Community Orienting Policing Services unit, packed into Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse on Wednesday for a meet and greet that included a Q&A. The meeting was organized by Philip Rafshoon, owner of Outwrite and who is a member of the APD's LGBT Advisory Group. Several members of the advisory group were also in attendance.
Officers stressed they wanted to rebuild trust with the LGBT community that has eroded significantly since the unconstitutional raid on the Atlanta Eagle in 2009. The city settled a federal lawsuit in December for more than $1 million with patrons of the bar the night it was raided. Also as part of the settlement, the APD must conduct an in-depth investigation into the raid to be completed by June.
"As a department as a whole we have had quite the negative image in the media and just in the community in general over the last couple years quite honestly," LGBT liaison Officer Brian Sharp said during a Q&A.
"I think that has been one of the toughest things for me personally ...in this position to overcome. It's an every day battle. That's not something we developed just over a two-hour period. That's something that happened over time," Sharp said. "And it's going to to take time to move away from that and move toward where we want to go which is building much better relationship with the community."
APEX replaces Red Dog
Major Chris Leighty, who supervises the new APEX Unit that has replaced the controversial Red Dog Unit, was at the meet and greet and said the event was an important first step in rebuilding trust with the LGBT community and all communities. APEX is an acronym for Atlanta Proactive Enforcement & Interdiction. Chief George Turner announced in February Red Dog would be disbanded in 60 days
Leighty also answered questions about what APEX's role is now and how it differs from Red Dog, which was accused of heavy-handed tactics during the raid on the Atlanta Eagle. Patrons in the bar the night of the raid said Red Dog officers stepped on them after they were forced to the floor, were threatened and used anti-gay slurs against them.
"The trouble [of mistrust] with the gay community wasn't always that way. Red Dog for years had a good rapport. I think what [hurt] was the Eagle raid," he said.
The lead investigator of the Eagle raid, Bennie Bridges, was arrested in February for driving drunk and for possession of marijuana. He was suspended without pay but remains on the force. Two other Red Dog officers involved in the Eagle raid were accused of groping men during a traffic stop.
Leighty — who was not with Red Dog when the Eagle Raid occurred — said all supervisors of the 32-member APEX unit are different than the supervisors of the disbanded Red Dog Unit and each of the officers who interviewed for the new unit had a thorough Office of Professional Standards background check as well as went through a stringent interview process.
Three officers involved in the Eagle raid are with the new APEX Unit and two of those are former Red Dog officers, Leighty said.
"I'm not going to punish someone because of an affiliation if they did nothing wrong. I believe in giving people a chance," he said.
APEX will still have a tactical function, similar to Red Dog, and conduct crowd control in a situation where there may be violence, he added.
"Our communities over time have changed and we want to be part of it. This is a positive first step. We're going to enforce things and do it the right way," he added.
The unit is expected to be fully operational by the end of the summer.
"They're a pretty impressive group of folks," he said.
Leighty also said that if an officer seems disrespectful to a person, it may not be out of malice.
"Sometimes something we do may seem disrespectful but sometimes it's just ignorance. It's good to talk. If we're not communicationg and you don't feel involved then weve failed," he said.
Taking policing to the streets
Chief Deputy Renee Propes, the first known openly gay person to hold a command position within the APD, discussed her position as head of the department's Community Services Division which includes officers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the special operations unit and the new Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
In the near future, LGBT liaisons Sharp and Senior Patrol Officer Patricia Powell, as well as the Hispanic liaison, will be reassigned to the COPS unit, Propes said. Currently the LGBT liaisons are supervised by the APD's Chief of Staff Erika Shields. The liaisons new supervisor will be Lt. Brent Schierbaum, who is openly gay and is the former Zone 6 Evening Watch Commander.
In 2009, the APD received a $11.2 million federal grant to fund 50 new police officers for three years. With that money, the department hired new recruits and reassigned veteran officers to the Community Liaison Unit, which falls under the COPS umbrella, Propes explained. The officers are then reassigned out in the community to work proactively with citizens. COPS was officially unveiled in March.
"The vast majority of folks [of COPS] are members of the Community Liasion Unit. They're here to help us rebuild relationships. I know we've struggled with that in every community, not just within this community," Propes said.
By intentionally putting officers into communities to talk to people, the APD hopes to better serve the city.
"We take veteran officers out of different zones and bring then into the Community Liaison Unit under COPS umbrella and reassign them out in the community," Propes said. "This is giving us a new proactive layer."
Officers receive LGBT trainings
Sharp said he and Powell continue to train officers every day on LGBT issues as part of a new initiative implemented late last year.
"We have tons and tons of good officers that work in our department. Just talk to them, give them an opportunity to prove themselves. Let us prove ourselves and let us prove that we're there to work with you and not against you," he said.
Sharp said the training of the entire 2,000-member department should be completed by May.
"We will talk to our superiors because I do think something should be done. It definitely should be ongoing," Powell said.
APEX undergoes training on transgender issues
Tracee McDaniel, a transgender activist and founder of Juxtaposed Center for Transformation as well as a member of the Atlanta Police LGBT Advisory Group, conducted a transgender training with Alicia Newson and Simaya Fogle from Someone Cares of Atlanta to the entire 32-member APEX Unit on April 1. The session was approximately two hours.
Officer Powell said she was asked by Major Leighty to put together a presentation on transgender people and she immediately contacted McDaniel.
Powell explained the transgender training for the APEX Unit was separate and different than the LGBT training that is being taught to the entire department.
McDaniel said issues discussed included correct terms to use when talking to transgender people, the history of transgender people as well as a general overview of what it means to be transgender.
"It went very well. They were very receptive. They asked a lot of questions," McDaniel said.
Top photo: Major Chris Leighty (far left), Deputy Chief Renee Propes and Lt. Brent Schierbaum answer questions during an Atlanta Police meet and greet on Wednesday. (by Dyana Bagby)
Second photo: Outwrite owner Philip Rafshoon (far left) with Atlanta Police LGBT liaisons Patricia Powell and Brian Sharp.
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