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Making the police safe for gay officers

Philadelphia's new police commissioner is pushing a more open attitude toward brotherly love in the city. Within his own ranks, Charles H. Ramsey wants to make it safe for gay and lesbian officers to be out of the closet amid a macho culture that, he acknowledges, keeps most of them in hiding.

Officer Sharon Brambrinck stands at her patrol car while working in the 17th District. (Clem Murray/Inquirer)
Officer Sharon Brambrinck stands at her patrol car while working in the 17th District. (Clem Murray/Inquirer)Read more

Philadelphia's new police commissioner is pushing a more open attitude toward brotherly love in the city.

Within his own ranks, Charles H. Ramsey wants to make it safe for gay and lesbian officers to be out of the closet amid a macho culture that, he acknowledges, keeps most of them in hiding.

"My goal is to create an environment where officers don't feel intimidated in any way," Ramsey said in a recent interview. "If they want to acknowledge [their sexuality], they should feel comfortable doing it."

In another trust-building initiative, Ramsey is considering launching a full-time unit dedicated to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Modeled on the pioneering, award-winning detachment he created in Washington in 2000, it would include two or three officers and a base in Center City's "gayborhood," roughly bounded by 11th, Broad, Chestnut and Pine Streets.

Many say such a unit would improve the under-reporting of hate crimes and domestic disturbances by the city's LGBT residents.

"They don't have faith that the police will do something," Ramsey says. "We want to make sure they feel comfortable telling us about any issue that needs to be addressed. . . . We need to be very sensitive to that."

Ramsey is also considering new liaison units for Asians and Hispanics.

Lt. Jacqueline Daley, an "out" lesbian and special adviser to the commissioner, and Chief Inspector Jim Tiano, a 43-year veteran, are counseling Ramsey on gay initiatives. Both serve on the commissioner's LGBT liaison committee started under John F. Timoney in 1998.

A police unit for the gay community "would be a big accomplishment for the city," says Ralph Riviello, 39, an openly gay physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and a committee member. "It gives us a sense of belonging, identity, recognition."

Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, 57, labels it a win-win: "It would make gay cops feel secure as well as the gay community."

The 2002 death of popular transsexual entertainer Nizah Morris triggered tension between police and LGBT citizens.

When Morris was seen drunk and staggering outside a Center City bar, people on the street called 911 for an ambulance. Instead, a police officer arrived, canceled the call, and drove off with Morris in his patrol car.

At the time, police officials said Morris had not wanted to go to a hospital and asked to be dropped off at 15th and Walnut Streets. Minutes after the officer left her, she was found on the sidewalk, unconscious and bleeding profusely from head wounds. She died two days later.

The LGBT community protested that police had not taken Morris' condition seriously and had not sought medical treatment, per department policy. Her mother filed a civil-rights suit against the city in September 2003; it was settled the next June.

"Some gay people are unsure of how the police will respond when they find out they're gay," says Stacey Sobel, executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, an LGBT legal group. "The community needs to feel safe in coming forward and that their complaints will be treated seriously."

Hate crimes and police harassment are "drastically" under-reported here, Sobel says.

Over the next two to three years, Ramsey hopes to have all police employees take gay-sensitivity training. Currently, only new recruits do.

The commissioner insists there is zero tolerance for any kind of discrimination in his department of 6,700. He also acknowledges that unless the culture changes, gay men and lesbians will continue to be reluctant to become police officers.

"What people do in their personal lives is not important. . . . I just want good cops," Ramsey said.

Thomas G. Kalt Jr., 26, the department's first openly gay recruit, shot himself to death in January 1999, two days after telling his commander he was resigning. He had been on the force three weeks.

Police officials and Kalt's friends said personal problems, not the pressure of his sudden notoriety, drove him to take his own life.

Stephen Glassman, 57, chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and a member of the LGBT liaison committee, sees it differently.

Kalt's suicide "sends a very chilling message. It says there's a disconnect between a public policy of support and the reality of life on the street for an openly gay officer. If a pioneer isn't being supported, it's a prescription for disaster."

Glassman, who says he knows more than a dozen gay Philadelphia officers, says it's fear of harassment, or worse, that keeps them in hiding.

"If they're in a critical situation where they need backup, they're afraid it won't be there," he says.

The Inquirer tried to interview more than 20 gay male officers. Only two agreed to speak, along with several lesbian officers. Their experiences are varied.

Daley, 46, a second-generation Philadelphia police officer and a lawyer, says she has been open about her sexuality since joining the force "as a very young lass" of 19.

"I never hid it. I never saw it as an issue. I have to honestly say I've never felt overt homophobia. That's not to say people don't say things behind my back. I'm sure they do."

Daley and Ann Fleischer, 41, a middle-school French teacher, have been a couple for five years. Daley says she doesn't understand those who keep their sexuality a secret.

"They live behind a facade. For me, it's always been so liberating to be who I am. Everyone I encounter who's closeted seems to create a lot of angst in their lives. It's very much a personal decision. I'm not trying to judge."

Cpl. Douglas Smart and Officer Ralph Nieves have been a couple for almost nine years. Smart, 54, and Nieves, 35, call each other husband, wear wedding bands, and have rainbow stickers on their cars. Both say they have never experienced homophobia on the job.

"I don't talk about it on a daily basis, but if something comes up, it's fine," says Smart, a 22-year veteran. Before meeting Nieves, he was married to a woman for 20 years. They have a 28-year-old son.

"Most people respect me more for being out," says Nieves, 13 years on the force. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, I'm judged by how I do my job, not my sexual orientation."

Officer Sharon Brambrinck, 42, says her experience has been difficult. A Kensington native and Hallahan High graduate, she joined the department in 1990.

"You're stereotyped. You're an outcast. Your safety's at risk. Nobody wants to work with you. Every little thing you do is built up and held against you."

Brambrinck says she was fired in 2000 for allegedly pointing her service weapon at her supervisor. She says it was a trumped-up charge because she was organizing for Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), a national organization based in New York.

After several meetings, Brambrinck stepped down as president. "With my history with the department, I was not the right person."

GOAL flyers, posted at her district station station and at police headquarters, were torn down and defaced, she says. The group fizzled out.

"We weren't taken seriously by the department," she says.

Brambrinck says she got her job back through arbitration in 2003. Two years later, she was accused of stalking another female officer, a charge that was later dropped, she says.

These days, the department has an unspoken "Don't ask, don't tell" attitude, she says.

In contrast to Philadelphia, New York's chapter of GOAL has 1,000 members. More than two-thirds are current or former police officers; others work in criminal justice, says NYPD Detective Tom Verni, the group's executive director.

When GOAL began as a fraternal organization in 1982, its monthly meetings were held in secret, Verni says. Ten years later, then-New York Mayor David Dinkins called the June gathering to order.

Verni, 39, did not come out by choice. He was outed by some fellow officers in 1993, nine months after joining the NYPD. He was named New York's full-time citywide LGBT community liaison in 2006.

"A few guys said they didn't want to work with me," he says. "Some stopped going out for beers. Up to that point, these were people I got along with very well. They considered me a good cop, a good friend."

Sgt. Brett Parson, commander of Washington's gay-liaison unit and a frequent gay-sensitivity instructor at the Philadelphia Police Academy, says there is work to be done here.

"What I've heard from officers I know is that it's not a safe place to be out," Parson says. Having almost no "out" officers "really tells you what the climate is like."

Parson, 40, an openly gay man and decorated officer, was picked by Ramsey to start the D.C. liaison unit, which in 2005 won a prestigious Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University. It includes six full-time officers, not all of whom are gay.

Being gay will not be a requirement for Philadelphia's unit, either, Ramsey says. "What we need are officers with sensitivity. You don't have to be gay to serve the gay community, or black to serve the black community.

"Ideally, you want officers capable of focusing on any environment."