I thought the roof was going to pop off the tiny room at the Jack Purcell Community Centre in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago. Take 80 people, cram them into an inadequate space, give them very little information and tell them they shouldn’t cause a fuss — a surefire way to start a riot. But this is Ottawa, of course, so we bit our lips and clung to any scrap of information we could ascertain from the self-congratulatory pronouncements of the Ottawa Police over the brutal beating of well-known drag personality Dixie Landers.
We still don’t know what happened to Dixie at the Centretown Pub last month. All we’ve heard is that the police don’t think that this was a hate crime, that the investigation is still underway, and that we’re not entitled to any information until they’ve completed their work. That’s understandable. That’s the way that community meetings are supposed to play out. The police refuse to release information, and the queer community pushes for maximum disclosure.
Except that’s not what happened at the meeting organized earlier this month by the Ottawa Police Liaison Committee for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Communities. Instead, the very people who are supposed to represent the queer community spent almost an hour praising the work of their friends on the police force, taking great pains to assure the agitated crowd that we should sit back and wait until the police decide what our community deserves to know.
Meanwhile, person after person stood up to ask the questions that the liaison committee was ignoring: What evidence do you have to reassure us that this wasn’t a hate crime? What actions did the paramedics take when they arrived on the scene? Do we have any reason to be scared to hang out at gay bars? Is there a violent person out there targeting our community? And why did it take the liaison committee more than a week to communicate with us?
Though there’s no denying the fact that Ottawa has one of the most queer-friendly police forces in Canada, it wasn’t always this way.
In 1989, Alain Brosseau was walking home from his job at the Chateau Laurier, when he was tailed by a gang of teenagers. They accused him of being gay and threw him off the Alexandria Bridge. When the queer community was unsatisfied with the way the police treated this case, they created the Ottawa-Hull Lesbian and Gay Task Force.
According to Douglas Janoff, author of Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada, the task force was initially very effective, forcing the police to develop a Hate Crimes Section, participate in a liaison committee, document incidents of homophobic behaviour, and march in the gay pride parade. Since its formation, the committee has had many other successes, most notably its tight working relationship with Ottawa’s trans community.
Still, Janoff fears that the relationship between the police officers and community members on the committee might be too cozy.
In 2002, a series of assaults committed by the same perpetrator raised questions about the liaison committee’s effectiveness. Lawrence Pigeon was eventually arrested, after targeting men on Cruiseline. Pigeon would choke his victims after sex, saying “I’ll kill you, cocksucker.” Even though the police knew that there was a perpetrator stalking gay men on dating phone lines, it took them a full nine months to inform the queer community. They kept both the liaison committee and Capital Xtra (which runs Cruiseline) in the dark.
Pigeon later entered into a plea agreement for 38 criminal charges related to 10 separate incidences. Because he claimed that he was bisexual, the police refused to characterize his crimes as hate-motivated. According to Janoff, the chair of the liaison committee at the time “heaped praise” on the police’s handling of the incident, event though the queer community had been left in the dark.
Several months later, another person was arrested for assaulting a couple of leather men. This time, Ottawa’s hate crimes section took notice, because one of the assailants said, “fucking little faggots, I’m going to bash your head in.” In this case, the police judged that the crime was hate-motivated, because there was no question that the perpetrator was heterosexual.
“According to the Ottawa police, one incident conforms to their definition of a hate crime, while the other does not,” writes Janoff. “Why is the queer community allowing the police to define what is and is not hateful toward their community?”
Janoff is critical of the liaison committee, because he says that the meetings are often stacked with more police officers than community members. I certainly observed a similar dynamic at the Dixie Landers meeting.
“All of the strategy is taking place in the same room with the police,” writes Janoff. “We need to meet in our own space and discuss issues important to the queer community, then go to the police and say ‘These are our issues.’ It’s now difficult to separate the issues of the community from those of the police.”
When Janoff launched his book two years ago, he tried to get the Ottawa liaison committee to hear his criticism, but it fell on deaf ears. Perhaps it’s time we considered that the relationship between the Ottawa police and the queer liaison committee might be too close for comfort.