Kelly Burkhardt, LGBTQ liaison at the Philadelphia DAO at the announcement of its LGBTQ+ Advisory Board in March 2021

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In a first, Philadelphia has started tracking crimes committed against LGBTQ people in real time. The goal: to provide the victims with affirming resources — and to better understand the problem of violence against queer and trans people.

It has been a violent year so far in Philly, with 622 shootings and homicides up 32%, and LGBTQ people are known to face disproportionate levels of violence. That’s especially true for Black trans women. Last year, at least three Black trans women were attacked in Philadelphia. Two of them died.

National and local systems to track this violence are massively unequipped, research shows, and Philly officials say they often rely on word of mouth.

Kelly Burkhardt, LGBTQ liasion for the District Attorney’s Office, and her colleagues designed a custom solution for Philadelphia — one experts say could be the first of its kind.

Burkhardt’s team identified roughly 50 keywords that are related to LGBTQ life, including the names of community centers and gay bars; phrases like “her girlfriend” or “his husband”; the names of hormones; and homophobic slurs.

Whenever one of the words is typed into a Philadelphia police report, it automatically populates a spreadsheet in the DA’s office. Burkhardt and her team can evaluate each entry for accuracy, and call the victim to offer services, ideally within 48 hours.

“The point of identifying anything is to put resources toward them,” Burkhardt said. “Ultimately that’s what is needed because that’s what’s going to help all of us heal.”

The system is far from perfect. The keyword method means crimes don’t show up in the tracker unless specific phrases are used, and there are also false positives. Some say it will require robust police cooperation to really work.

Still, victims’ advocates say it’s a strong start, and could lead to more incidents being reported.

“This will be a tremendous help,” said Melany Nelson, executive director of Northwest Victim Services. “Once they know they can receive services from our office without judgment, in a professional manner and they’ll be respected, I believe so many more people from the LGBTQIA+ community will feel comfortable in reporting their crime.”

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Replacing ‘whisper down the lane’ 

Before the keyword system was introduced in November, victims’ advocates in Philadelphia relied on word of mouth to help LGBTQ people.

Nelson said she’d often guess someone was trans if the hospital told her they’d asked to be called a different name than the one in their records. “That will tell me, 9 times out of 10,” she said, “this is a transgender person.”

That’s when she’d loop in Burkhardt at the DA’s offices for services.

Once it’s known that an LGBTQ person is a victim of a crime, Burkhardt can help by providing housing and funding for medical expenses. She can make sure they’re being referred to by their proper pronouns in court. She can connect them to queer-friendly orgs, like the William Way LGBT Community Center, the Attic Youth Center, or Bebashi.

She can help defendants, too — informing someone’s attorney that their client may be a trans woman assigned to a men’s prison, for example. And sometimes a person’s gender or sexuality can make them a good candidate for a diversion program instead of prison, Burkhardt said.

But the patchwork system that existed before meant many LGBTQ people were likely slipping through the cracks.

“Before it was literally like the old school method of whisper down the lane,” Burkhardt said. “The only way we knew is if people called or texted me, or community members were reaching out. Obviously that’s not a very good way to show our city and our community that we want to keep them safe.”

Kendall Stephens, an advocate and student, at the DAO’s announcement of its LGBTQ+ Advisory Board in March 2021 Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A ‘good start’ but far from perfect

Since the tracking started in November, the DA’s office has used keywords to successfully identify 14 crimes committed against LGBTQ people.

“That’s the power of just being able to have this,” Burkhardt said. “When an arrest comes through, what we do now is track everything. It just wasn’t happening before.”

Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at the City University of New York who wrote a book called “Queering Law and Order” said the system sounds like a good start — but it won’t be complete until police are more integrated.

“I haven’t heard of anything like that before,” he said. “I think it’s one tool. At the same time, there need to be some other tools involving things like a major overhaul of policies, so that people from the start are able to identify crimes as being LGBTQ-related.”

Nadal recommended all PPD officers be trained on identifying homophobic and transphobic crimes, and suggsted a line on police reports to enter a victim’s gender identity and sexual orientation. He cautioned against relying too heavily on the new tool.

“Without acknowledging human error and the inefficiency of training and protocol, you could miss out on huge crimes,” he said.

A Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The imperfections in the tracker are evident. When a trans woman was stabbed in Mount Airy last month, Burkhardt said the keyword system didn’t catch it. And since November, the spreadsheet has incorrectly extracted 12 police reports that weren’t anti-LGBTQ crimes at all — almost as many as those that have been correctly identified.

“Some fall through the cracks,” Burkhardt said. “It’s not foolproof. We’re still working through it.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...