Police schooled in sensitivity towards gays

Rev Tom Decker presents the Commissioner with a gift.

Rev Tom Decker presents the Commissioner with a gift.

At a time when Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights are a hot issue in the Caribbean region, this week’s sensitivity training is crucial for the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force. With hate crimes in Jamaica happening at a staggering frequency, and anti-buggery laws under challenge in the JA courts, the handling of homosexual victims within a society where they are criminalised provides a particular challenge. Sponsored by Aids Free World and United & Strong (St Lucia), the seminars were delivered by Jamaican lawyer and Legal Advisor to Aids-Free World, Maurice Tomlinson, and Canadian former-police officer and now minister of Metropolitan Community Churches, Rev. Tom Decker.

Meeting the couple after day two of the training, I asked how the week was going. Tom Decker was positive and optimistic:

“So far it’s really going well. The first day was more general human rights issues as they pertain to the current situation the Royal St Lucia Police Force is faced with…and much of our first day was steered by the participants towards that aspect. Although it wasn’t as focused on LGBT issues, we were able to address such fundamental issues as the paradigm shift from a paramilitary organisation of policing towards a community-based, strategic policing model. We talked about…how we can assist officers in using discretion and making the best possible choices when it comes to using force in the execution of their duties.”

“Today…a number of the participants wanted to delve into the issue of LGBT, and we had a wonderful conversation – unfortunately it was only half a day…we could have delved much deeper into issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and how we as police officers relate to members of the community when interacting with them. We are still dealing in policing with a very hierarchical structure so …if you are addressing senior management, the training has to be different from that of a front line officer whose job is interacting with the community on a daily basis, so…we were looking at managerial skills and senior officer training, giving them the guiding principles and trusting they will employ them.”

Maurice Tomlinson was more guarded about the success of the first two sessions in meeting the objectives of the organisers and sponsors of the training:

“For…Aids Free World and United & Strong, it is very important that the issue of LGBT human rights be more developed so I am glad that today we were able to steer…away from exclusively managerial issues, because yesterday the Police Commissioner made it very clear he did not wish to discuss LGBT issues in depth, he wanted to be more general.”

“We were glad we could shift (the focus) back to…human rights for LGBT and how (officers) can police this community effectively, so that they will feel secure and go for testing, prevention and treatment (of HIV). In Jamaica, one in three MSM (men who have sex with men) is HIV positive – one of the highest prevalence rates in the world. And because they’re not out…60% of MSM have sex with women, many to mask their homosexuality, allowing HIV/AIDS to bridge into the general population. So for us the focus is making sure that the human rights of LGBT is central, and use that as a platform for discussion of general issues instead of the other way around, which I think was…the Commissioner’s preference.”

So given that the man at the top is not overly interested in getting to grips with gay issues, how difficult is it to deliver the message of human rights for LGBT to a police force that is used to treating the gay community as criminals?

Tom states, “Well it certainly represents an additional challenge, but…when victimisation occurs, when someone is beaten up, when there is a proverbial ‘gay-bashing’ or homophobic attack…first and foremost the person is a victim. The officers were very quick to assert that…their primary responsibility is to treat the individual as a victim, and to investigate the criminal occurrence. We made it very clear that the victim who is reporting is not an unapprehended criminal – what may have led up to the victimisation is really irrelevant unless it constitutes an element of the offence.”

“We also made it clear that we are not here advocating to change Saint Lucian laws … for me as an ex-police officer that is not my role… As police officers we are working within the confines of the law, but still…the primary issue is that if someone has experienced victimisation…they deserve the respect and treatment that all victims of crime receive.”

Maurice Tomlinson however, was quick to identify that as an attorney-at-law, HIV and AIDS activist and LGBT rights advocate, he is open in supporting the abolition of anti-gay laws in Saint Lucia.”

“I have no issues saying to a police officer that you are allowed to operate within the confines of the law, but you must remember that not all LGBT are criminalised, and there is a knee-jerk reaction that once you’re gay the law says ‘something’ about intimacy between particular partners. They treat all LGBT the same…yet there is no criminalisation of transgender, in fact there is no criminalisation of being gay. The activity that they engage in may be criminalised, but the fact of being a different sexual orientation is not, so (police) cannot treat the person as an unapprehended criminal.”

“In Belize and Trinidad the immigration laws actually criminalise the fact of being homosexual…but that is not on the books in Saint Lucia. As an advocate I am free to say that I think those laws need to go, but it’s not the role of the police to make that happen. The purpose of this training is to ensure that the police provide security for LGBT so they will feel safe to come out and access
prevention, treatment and care interventions – that will reduce the prevalence of HIV around the country.”

The rest of the two week course will continue to expose the RSLPF to LGBT rights issues, ultimately training all levels from Commissioner (assuming he does not try to change the subject again) to frontline officers and even the new recruits who deal directly with victims. There will also be two days devoted to sensitising police training officers from the OECS region.

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