Can You Teach Sensitivity?

David Williams

 

In a small lecture hall on a warm spring afternoon at New York’s futuristic Police Academy in College Point, Queens, Officer Lydia Figueroa draws a stick figure on a dry-erase board. The figure has broad shoulders, a cinched waist, two dots for eyes, a crude smile, and a faux-hawk. The class votes to name him Caleb.

“What’s Caleb carrying with him?” Figueroa asks the room of about 70 young, mostly male, cadets.

“A messenger bag,” someone calls out. She draws a messenger bag.

“What kind of shoes is he wearing?”

“Boat shoes,” another calls out.

“Where does Caleb live?”

“Chelsea,” says one cadet.

“Williamsburg,” says another. The class laughs. She writes “Williamsburg” on the board.

“What does our stereotypical gay guy do for work?” Figueroa asks.

“He’s got money,” calls out one cadet.

“Hairdresser,” says another.

“Finance.”

They take a vote. Caleb works in finance.

“Where do we get these ideas about Caleb?” Figueroa asks. A murmur percolates: the streets, media, advertising.

“Do you know what the term ‘heterosexist’ means?” she asks. “What about the term ‘homophobic’?”

The two-hour course, titled “LGBT-Sensitivity Training” and sponsored by GOAL, the Gay Officers Action League, is required for the students preparing to enter New York City’s nearly 35,000-member police force (roughly 1,500 graduate annually). The mood is light and fun, like a field trip, and participants are encouraged to unbutton their starched uniforms and kick back.

“ ‘Racism’ and ‘sexism’ are easier for them, so we’re trying to get them to think the same way about homophobia,” says Detective Carl Locke, who serves as the president of GOAL, a trim 46-year-old with a crew cut. “We have some people who come to these classes, and they are clearly not going to change their opinions. All this is trying to do is get them to a place where they might loosen up.”

When Mayor Ed Koch signed an executive order in 1978 banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in city agencies, the response from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association was swift and damning, claiming that openly gay officers would do more harm than good. “Sociability, vital to building a cohesive force, can never develop with homosexuals for obvious reasons,” the president of the organization wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. GOAL was founded in 1982 by two New York police officers, Sam Ciccone and Sgt. Charles Cochrane, Jr. In 1987, when GOAL first marched in New York’s Pride parade, officers patrolling the route turned their backs on GOAL.

Today is a somewhat different story. Yet despite the record number of women and minorities — specifically Asians — in this year’s graduating class, the NYPD remains a very macho institution. The handful of cops who teach the course share coming-out stories, and discuss issues facing the LGBT community, proper terminology, and their own experiences of being gay on the force.

“I used to work the three-four,” Figueroa tells the class (34th Precinct).

“Can you imagine hiding your sexuality in Washington Heights in the summertime?” In no time, she was alongside her male co-workers, dishing typical cop pickup lines to attractive ladies on the street, like “Damn, you look so familiar. Do you have a brother who’s a cop?”

David Williams
Photograph by David Williams

 

“Do you agree that lesbians have it easier on the force than gay men?” Locke asks the cadets. “What do we do to a lesbian on the job? We make her into one of the guys, take her to the strip club. The gay guy, what do we do with him? We feminize him, make him weaker, bitchy, catty. Is he going to be one of the guys?” he asks.

No, the class groans.

“There’s a lot of public sex that happens in New York,” Locke tells the class. “If you don’t know this, you’re going to see it on roofs, on subways, inside a car, in stations, clubs, and alleys.” He proposes a scenario: While on a peacekeeping patrol in a nightclub district, the cadets find a girl giving a blowjob to a guy in a parked car.

“What are you going to do? I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to say, ‘Oh shit! This guy’s getting lucky.’ And you’re going to back away from the window,” he says. “Now imagine it’s two guys — what are you going to do? We oftentimes arrest them. If you look at the number of people arrested for public lewdness, we are arresting men because we’re not used to it. If you’re going to arrest those two guys, you’d better arrest that guy and girl. Otherwise you’re biased cops.”

Officer Brooke Bukowski of the 70th Precinct takes the stage in heels and a skirt. When she reveals herself as transgender on the force — one of only about six people, that she knows of, who are openly trans — the cadets rustle to attention.

“You can ask me anything you want,” she says. The hands begin to creep into the air — “except about my genitals” — and the hands slink back down.

“Did you go through puberty again when you went on hormones?” one cadet asks.

“Do your boyfriend’s parents ever pressure you about having children?” asks another.

“If there’s a dead body and they can’t tell you their preferred name and gender, but their license says male, what do you do?”

“As a cop you have to put what it legally says on the paperwork, but you’re not writing the obituary, so don’t worry,” Bukowski says.

The instructors bring students to the front for role-playing scenarios: a response call to a hate crime against a trans woman, a locker-room scene where fellow officers throw around homophobic language, and a domestic violence call involving a gay couple. The cadets playing the responding officers don’t do so well in the last one. After a few uncomfortable questions, they end up leaving the victim with the perpetrator.

“Something happens to us when we see two men together. We think of them as equals because you don’t have those visual cues to help you,” Locke tells the students. “Half of gays and lesbians in New York City don’t report to the police because they expect that the police department is homophobic and that we don’t care. They’re afraid you’re going to make fun of them,” he says.

The cadets nod. The screech of a chair being pushed against the linoleum echoes through the room. One cadet, sitting near the back, who’d spent much of the class reclining with folded arms and a defiant expression, stands up and walks out.

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