The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the city on Tuesday, alleging that Bronx-based NYPD officers profiled and harassed a transgender woman they erroneously took into custody, ultimately charging her with "false personation" on the basis of her gender identity. According to the NYCLU, the case highlights a familiar pattern in local policing of transgender New Yorkers, despite changes to guidelines intended to force the NYPD to do better.
"It's one thing to say something on paper, and it's another thing to actually change the culture of an institution like the NYPD," Bobby Hodgson, an NYCLU staff attorney, told Gothamist. "This type of intimidation and harassment is pervasive ... it has not stopped for many decades, and it continues to be a huge issue faced by the trans community in New York City and elsewhere."
Linda Dominguez, a permanent resident of the U.S. who has lived in the Bronx for seven years, says that shortly before midnight on April 18th, 2018, she was walking home through Claremont Park in the Bronx when four NYPD officers stopped her. Dominguez speaks Spanish and very limited English, a fact she says she communicated to the police. She did understand when they asked her for her name, however, and although Dominguez legally changed her first name to Linda in May 2017, previous experiences with the NYPD led her to believe they wanted her former, "traditionally masculine" name, according to the complaint. She gave them that, along with her address and date of birth. Dominguez says the officers made no mention of consequences for providing the wrong name.
They did, however, arrest her for trespassing in a park after hours, and brought her to the 44th Precinct for booking. There, according to the complaint, she was finally able to explain the situation to a Spanish-speaking officer, who informed her for the first time that offering incorrect information would mean more charges. That officer reportedly translated the exchange for her colleagues, who threw Dominguez in a holding cell, where officer Megan Francis, named in the suit, allegedly proceeded to anchor Dominguez to a bar using pink handcuffs. Dominguez says she saw other people around the precinct (albeit not in cells) with their wrists in cuffs, but hers were the only pink set she counted.
Dominguez stayed handcuffed in that cell overnight, according to the NYCLU, and throughout the experience, officers insisted on using her old first name and male pronouns. They also subjected her to verbal harassment, Dominguez alleges, making her understand that the "gestures, glares, and mocking and disgusted tones of voice ... [were made in reference to] her transgender status." Ultimately, the NYPD added a false personation (i.e., identity theft) charge to her docket the next day, using the wrong name and pronouns on her paperwork.
In August, a criminal court judge dismissed the charges, and now, the NYCLU asks as-yet undetermined damages (and payment of legal costs and attorneys' fees) in recompense for the NYPD's alleged malicious prosecution; violations of New York city and state civil rights and anti-discrimination laws; bias-based profiling; violation of the state constitution; and negligence in training and supervision.
The NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits officers from giving out false personation charges to transgender people who present their chosen names, thanks to a 2012 update. That same change requires officers to use a person's chosen pronouns, bars officers from harassing people in their custody because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, and specifically states that transgender people cannot be cuffed to rails, pipes, chairs, and so forth for extended periods of time. But, as the NYCLU pointed out in a press release announcing the complaint, there remains a wide gulf between what officers are supposed to do, and what they actually do.
In 2015, New York published state-specific findings pulled from the U.S. Transgender Survey, which showed that in the past 12 months, 61 percent of the state's 1,779 survey participants had experienced biased treatment—verbal harassment, physical assault, sexual assault, coercive sex, and willful misgendering—by law enforcement officials who knew about their transgender status. In 2017, the city's inspector general released a report that helped explain why transgender residents continued to feel particularly unsafe around police: Officers had not been uniformly trained in the policy update (only six in 77 precincts received the training), and tracking of LGBTQ-related bias complaints had been spotty at best.
If you don't keep tabs on the nature and frequency of these types of complaints, it becomes all the more difficult to detect violations and reform internal culture. However, as Hodgson pointed out, the practice of handing out false personation charges to transgender people who've changed their names is widespread and well-known enough within the NYPD to have merited its own call-out in the patrol guidelines. That update represented a solid step forward for law enforcement, but "there's so much more legwork that needs to be done to make sure [that policy change reflects] the lived reality of actual trans people in New York City," Hodson said. Particularly trans people of color, because racial profiling certainly seems like a precipitating factor in this case: it is hard to imagine four officers approaching and arresting a white person walking through a public park at night, even if it is illegal to do so.
In a statement, an NYPD spokesperson said: "The NYPD is committed to serving and meeting the needs of the LGBTQ community with sensitivity, equity, and effectiveness. To that end, the NYPD has carefully and thoughtfully designed and implemented effective policies, training protocols, outreach initiatives, and disciplinary processes. The NYPD will continue to communicate and collaborate with the LGBTQ community as we seek to further strengthen our relationship with all of the communities throughout the City that we protect and serve."
Still, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Gothamist in a statement that he and his colleagues would "be discussing this incident with the NYPD and continuing to conduct oversight on their policies as the facts come to light."
"While interacting with New Yorkers, NYPD officers have to ensure that they respect everyone’s human rights, and the rights of transgender individuals are no exception," Johnson added. "In fact, given the hatred faced all too often by the transgender community, the NYPD should take special care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of transgender New Yorkers."