Philly’s surprising arrest rate in reported violence against trans women this year: 100%

These kinds of cases are likely under-counted, however, thanks to a fraught relationship with police.

Tatyana Woodard of Philly's Mazzoni Center, a trans woman, has encouraged the Pa. Legislature to pass laws that would protect transgender people

Tatyana Woodard of Philly's Mazzoni Center, a trans woman, has encouraged the Pa. Legislature to pass laws that would protect transgender people

Emma Lee / WHYY
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When Los Angeles police this week captured a suspect accused of murdering Dominique Rem’mie Fells, it marked the third arrest in as many cases of violence against Philadelphia Black trans women this year.

The 100% arrest rate is astonishing, experts say. Historically, it’s been more common for police to be violent toward trans people than to prioritize solving crimes committed against them.

“That’s very rare. That’s unheard of,” said Dr. Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at the City University of New York who wrote a book called “Queering Law and Order.”

“Most violent acts against trans people end up being unsolved,” Nadal explained. “To hear a police department in Philadelphia has been successful in at least apprehending these suspects, that’s very surprising.”

Suspect Akhenaton Jones, accused of killing Fells and leaving her dismembered body on the banks of the Schuylkill River in June, was apprehended in California on Monday. Over the past few months, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner had already begun prosecuting suspects in connection with two other acts against local Black trans women in 2020: the murder of Mia Green and the brutal assault against Kendall Stephens.

“I think it’s clear that members of the transgender community who have long advocated for their right to live in dignity and peace are responsible for moving institutions like law enforcement to evolve in attitudes and practices,” said Krasner spokesperson Jane Roh.

Across the U.S., just 40% of murders against trans people have resulted in arrests over the past three year, according to data from lobbyist group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Part of the issue in prosecuting and solving these cases is thought to be reluctance on the part of victims to talk to law enforcement. Throughout American history, police have been violent toward trans people at higher rates than their cisgender peers. And in Pennsylvania, violence against the LGBTQ community still doesn’t count as a hate crime.

Kendall Stephens, who was brutally beaten inside her home in September, said trans people still deal with discrimination from rank-and-file police officers on a regular basis.

“Just about everyone who is trans that I know of has had some sort of negative, transphobic interaction with a police officer,” Stephens said.

Media attention matters, advocates say

The law enforcement attention Philadelphia is giving to acts of violence against trans people doesn’t exist nationwide.

Suspects were only arrested in about half these cases across the country, per an Everytown for Gun Safety study that identified 96 such situations in the past three years. A quarter remain unsolved with no leads, and only 1 in 10 have led to convictions.

Why has Philly seen more success of late? It’s hard to be sure, but Nadal, the CUNY professor, said the city’s progressive leadership is likely a huge help.

After Fells’ killing, Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement calling violence against trans people “an epidemic.” DA Krasner has spoken out against recent killings, and hosted meetings with Stephens and other Black trans women to seek solutions. State Sen. Larry Farnese has re-introduced three bills to protect queer and trans Pennsylvanians from discrimination and hate crimes.

The Philadelphia Police Department has an LGBTQ liaison, and PPD rules mandate officers use the correct pronouns for victims of violence. That’s a major shift, as the relationship between trans people and law enforcement has long been adversarial.

In the mid-1900s, masquerade laws criminalized dressing in clothes that didn’t align with your sex. Police in New York used the informal “three-article rule” — meaning if a person wore three items of clothes considered belonging to the opposite gender, they could be arrested. These discriminatory laws culminated in the Stonewall Uprising, a series of riots led by Black trans women against police violence.

Trans people are still seven times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with police compared to cisgender people. Misgendering and discrimination has been common for Stephens — so much so that she’s just decided not to report past assaults to police at all.

Though not the sort of systemic change we need, Nadal said, action like what’s been seen in Philly can make a perceptible difference.

“For a mayor to speak of Black trans lives, that’s something you won’t see in many cities or towns across the U.S.”

After recovering from the beating in her South Philly home, Stephens was invited to Harrisburg to advocate for more trans protections at the state level. She believes media attention played a big factor in the city’s 100% arrest rate this year.

“Rem’mie’s murder was so shockingly disturbing that people looked past the fact that she was transgender,” Stephens said. “It does seem like once a case gets a high level of media attention, everyone scrambles to get it right.”