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Improving cop/queer relations

Pussy Palace grrrlz take on consultation process

What would you do to improve the way cops deal with queers?

“A lot of people understand that police need to do their jobs, but they also point out that there needs to be a shift in general police attitudes,” says Anna Willats, who is organizing a series of focus groups and public consultations on policing in queer communities.

Willats is working closely with members of the Pussy Palace class-action suit. The suit, launched in 2003 over a 2000 raid, was settled last December; one of the stipulations was that the Toronto Police Service require all officers to undergo improved queer sensitivity training.

The settlement, brokered by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, also awarded the plaintiffs $350,000. The plaintiffs covered their legal fees, and funnelled the rest back to community groups. They also got a written apology from the five male police officers.

But the big changes promised in policing policies are still to come.

Along with improved queer sensitivity training, the settlement mandates the creation of a search, arrest and detention policy specifically for trans people.

“We really need to make sure it’s a workable policy,” says Janet Rowe, one of the original complainants who brought the classaction suit to the Ontario Human Rights Commission on behalf of the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee.

The group is also looking to set up guidelines for the search and arrest of women in a place where women are fully or partially unclothed.

“Some of this should be pretty obvious,” says Willats. “For example, if police are entering a place where women are unclothed, send in women officers and give women a chance to cover up.”

On Sep 14, 2000, five fully clothed male police officers entered the Pussy Palace bathhouse and spent more than an hour searching the place under the suspicion that offences were taking place. There were about 350 women and trans people at the event, many of them fully or partially naked.

Liquor licence charges were dropped after a judge ruled that the women’s constitutional rights were violated by the police officers who charged them. The judge at the time likened the raid to “visual rape.”

The challenge now is to move past lingering distrust between cops and queers.

“The long-term project is to better integrate police and our communities. Diversity should be woven into every aspect of policing,” says Willats.

Suggestions already collected include that police officers get out of their cars more and get to know the neighbourhood, and that police be placed in a social-work setting as part of their sensitivity training.

“We also want to know about people’s good experiences… so we can give police examples of what kind of behaviour is really appreciated,” adds Willats. “Constructive feedback is important.”

Focus groups have already taken place with groups of queers who self-identify as marginalized, as well as bar and bathhouse owners. A focus group for trans people will take place in early October. A general public consultation on policing and queer communities took place at the 519 Community Centre on Sep 28.

Willats plans to submit a report to the Toronto Police Service by the end of October.

“What we’re limited by right now is time,” she says. “We’re doing our best to make sure we can get all the voices in there.”

No one from the Toronto Police Service returned Xtra’s calls by press time to comment on how seriously the report will be taken.