A Startling Look at How Cops Mistreat Trans People

A new report shows how police departments nationwide have failed to adopt or modernize policies protecting the rights of transgender people.
Cameron Whitman/Stocksy

Transgender communities in the United States have long experienced mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement. Police continue to misidentify transgender murder victims, neglect to identify their deaths as hate crimes, and criminalize trans people based on prejudice and stereotypes. Trans women—especially trans women of color—get profiled as sex workers simply for being transgender, and are routinely forced into confinement with men while being charged for “false personation” for not using their birth names.


Law enforcement’s failure to interact with trans populations ethically has been highlighted in a new report released Tuesday by the country’s leading trans rights organization, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Failing to Protect and Serve: Police Department Policies Towards Transgender People reveals a nationwide pattern of negligence in 25 of the country’s largest police departments.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the NCTE said that, working with dozens of other groups across the country, they uncovered, “systemic neglect by police nationwide to take proactive measures to prevent the mistreatment and misidentification of transgender people during arrests, witness interviews, search and seizure, and housing.” This neglect is concerning, NCTE states in its report, as such policies could improve “the treatment and safety of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals.”

The report evaluated departments on 17 proposed policies for how law enforcement should treat transgender people. The span of these policies is vast but basic, covering issues like officer training, anti-discrimination policies, profiling guidances, gender-inclusive paperwork, bathroom regulations, and standards for searching the bodies of trans people. Together, the policies represent a foundational understanding of trans people, a baseline education that would be necessary to inform law enforcement’s engagement with one of the nation’s most marginalized and highly criminalized social groups.


None of the 25 departments evaluated met all 17 proposed policies. The San Francisco Police Department met the criteria for eight of them, more than any other. The Houston Police Department does not currently meet the criteria for any of the NCTE’s recommended policies. To take a few examples, the HPD does not, according to the report, address discrimination based on gender identity, as the department does not “explicitly prohibit the use of gender identity or expression as a basis to stop, question, search, or arrest any individual, as a sole basis for initiating contact, or as evidence of a crime.” Other departments ranked similarly poorly, with Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Honolulu, Memphis, Miami-Dade, Phoenix, and Nassau County, New York, all failing to meet the criteria set forth in the proposed policies.

Just nine of the 25 departments “include gender identity and/or expression language in their non-discrimination policy,” the report concludes, explaining that such language, “is the best way to clarify that transgender people are protected.” And the majority of departments have no policies that explicitly require the use of correct name and pronouns. Sixteen departments have holding facilities, yet “only four adequately address access to hormone medications.” In a disturbing revelation, the Center found that 23 of the 25 departments evaluated do not explicitly prohibit “officer sexual misconduct towards members of the public.”

The organization cautions that the report “should not be treated as a comprehensive evaluation of a department’s success in ensuring fairness towards transgender people,” due to the fact that it is “based on publicly available written policies.” Instead, NCTE hopes that the report will “encourage departments to evaluate and modernize their policies to respectfully serve transgender individuals.”

“On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, transgender people of color remain targets of harassment, abuse, and violence,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of NCTE, said in a statement. “If we ever hope to end this crisis, police departments must evolve to meet the needs of the communities they have sworn to serve. The solutions we offer can lead these communities…to a more equitable future.”

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