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The resignation of a member of the Philadelphia Police Department LGBTQ Liaison Committee is raising questions about the group’s role and ability to fulfill its perceived purpose.
No one seems to agree on exactly when the committee was created, but it’s been around since the late 1990s and generally enjoys the local LGBTQ community’s confidence. Many first interact with the all-volunteer committee — composed of local LGBTQ community members — when complaining about officer bias or crime. It’s thought of as a place to petition for redress and reform.
The committee’s goal is “bridging the gap between the LGBTQ community and the Philadelphia Police Department,” according to its Facebook page.
However, the nearly 30-year-old group has no authority and serves entirely at the pleasure of the commissioner.
South Philly resident Rizzo Erno believes its less-than-ambitious mandate is holding the city back from progress on LGBTQ issues in policing. And it’s one of several reasons he resigned his committee seat earlier this year.
“When you can go no further, you have to step away,” Erno wrote in a Feb. 7 Facebook post announcing his resignation, “The committee needs to be abolished and redone right, with greater community representation. This city needs to do better.”
One of the ways it could do better, Erno told Billy Penn, is by defining consistent leadership. Since January of 2020, four separate police leaders have advised or worked closely with the group.
It was initially headed by former PPD Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan, who was known for his aptitude with community relations and deft navigation of issues like LGBTQ outreach and the city’s response to the opioid crisis. After he retired in 2020, he was followed in relatively quick succession by Inspector Altovise Love-Craighead and Sgt. Nicholas Tees. In summer 2022, Inspector Jarreau Thomas took over as department contact.
“Making this initiative better is impossible if we’re constantly rotating in officers,” Erno said, pointing to the fact that police leaders need time to develop deeper cultural competency and personal expertise to be effective.
In an email to Billy Penn, the Philadelphia Police Department agreed they need to do better.
The PPD “has recently undergone a restructuring of operations that will improve how our Community Relations Bureau provides services,” said spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp.
Current members of the committee feel that the PPD’s leadership changes stalled progress but are hopeful for the future.
Current co-chairs Marirose Roach and Tami Sortman in early 2022 developed a strategic plan to build on past progress and “take the committee to the next level,” the group said in a statement, but “momentum was short-lived due to command changes throughout the Police Department.”
Innovative, in the 1990s
By today’s standards, the group is arguably toothless, but the LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee’s formation nearly three decades ago under PPD Commissioner John Timoney and Mayor Ed Rendell was a hard fought victory for community advocates.
Before its formation, there was little official interface between the local LGBTQ community and police — at least in a positive manner.
Former Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo’s stamp on the local LGBTQ community included aggressive crackdowns on so-called “cruising” around Rittenhouse Square and violent raids on established safe community spaces like gay bars, “leading many to be verbally and physically abused by officers,” Mónica Marie Zorrilla explained in her look at local LGBTQ history for Billy Penn. That history endures today, both in historical texts and in oral history passed down between generations.
Today, the liaison committee exists mostly as a way for police to hear community concerns, to provide individual constituent services for LGBTQ Philadelphians in terms of crime or policing, and ensure PPD officers receive diversity and sensitivity training.
The group touts innovations like Directive 152, which outlines how cops should respectfully interact with LGBTQ community members during all kinds of stops. It has also helped with victim support and assistance, as well as diversity training, both for new cadets and veteran officers. While good in theory, however, “diversity trainings as they are currently practiced are unlikely to change police behavior,” per a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Effective or not, that diversity training is one of the few areas in which the committee is allowed to operate, according to boundaries erected by the police.
Under its current structure, the group cannot discipline officers. It cannot investigate crimes. Members serve at the pleasure of the commissioner. All of this makes it very difficult to hold the the department accountable.
In 2015, The Philadelphia Citizen urged municipal leaders to adopt a more aggressive model, suggesting a dedicated PPD unit that would investigate LGBTQ-related crimes, including same sex partner domestic violence cases, and implementing tracking of anti-LGBTQ bias complaints made against officers.
How to address membership recruitment
Another struggle facing the group is recruitment. The all-volunteer committee struggles with community participation, said Sgt. Gripp, the PPD spokesperson.
That’s a function of the committee’s structure, argued Erno, the former member who resigned, saying he believes members are dedicated to their cause. With the PPD controlling committee agendas and membership — it has veto power over anyone who applies — the group’s existence “comes across as a public relations stunt,” he said. “It has no sense of legitimacy.”
That’s the core problem, according to Erno. “If they want to do things right, they should start from a community-based standpoint, not a department-based standpoint,” he said.
His hope is for the LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee to work with community groups, the department, the District Attorney’s Office, and local prisons collaboratively develop things like service maps for engagement with the criminal justice system or trauma-informed processes tailored for specific constituency groups.
The department is open to changes, Gripp told Billy Penn, saying PPD is looking into a restructuring that might prevent such high turnover, and figuring out how “committee members can take a more active role in community outreach and education, internal officer diversity and sensitivity training, and, of course, continuing to help us foster positive police/LGBTQ+ community relations.”
Just as Erno is quick to praise the current committee members, the group is equally cheery about his 4-year stint of volunteer service.
“We are so grateful for the past committee leaders and members who have led the way and bridged the gap between the PPD and the LGBTQ+ community,” the group told Billy Penn. They urged anyone interested in joining their efforts or with questions to email Inspector Jarreau Thomas or Sergeant Eugene Crozier.
Still, given the relative lack of policy influence and its turnover problem, Erno believes the group is not serving its intended purpose.
“We’ve had situations where community members say they’ve been assaulted or had very unpleasant interactions with an officer. We’d have a committee meeting, we’d bring it up to police, and nothing would come of it. We’ve had a few members leave because of it,” Erno said. “It’s ineffectual.”
Correction: An early version of this article understated the length of time Erno served on the LGBTQ+ Liason Committee.