Activists say Rainbow Lounge raid highlights need for positions
In response to the concerns of gay-rights advocates, the Dallas Police Department’s LGBT liaison officer is now stationed at Resource Center Dallas in Oak Lawn at least one day a week.
Laura Martin, an out lesbian who’s been the department’s LGBT liaison officer for the last few years, is assigned to a full-time bicycle patrol at White Rock Lake Park.
But the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the city’s chief nonpartisan LGBT advocacy group, has been pushing for the liaison officer position to become full time.
Martin said her supervisors in the department’s Northeast Division recently signed off on her spending one day a week at RCD, the LGBT community center that’s situated in the city’s most heavily gay neighborhood and in DPD’s Northwest Division.
"We compromised on it because it’s really not in the budget right now to have a full-time liaison officer," Martin said. "We’re just trying to maintain a balance and keep everybody happy at the lake and keep the GLBT community happy, too."
Asked about the change this week, Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle stressed that he isn’t necessarily opposed to making the LGBT liaison position full time. But Kunkle said he’s unsure whether there would be enough work to keep Martin busy.
Kunkle also noted that the department has assigned an officer in the Northwest Division to assist Martin with her liaison duties since she was transferred to White Rock Lake from Oak Lawn about two years ago.
I think that we’re doing what we need to do, but if we’re not, we’ll change and make adjustments," Kunkle said. "We’ve always been prepared to do what is appropriate and necessary to good relations."
Patti Fink, president of DGLA, said this week she was pleased to learn about the change. Earlier this year, as part of its endorsement process, DGLA quizzed city council candidates about whether they’d support making the LGBT liaison position full time.
"To be able to be purely dedicated as a liaison for a full day every week, that’s I think a great step," Fink said, adding that DGLA would continue to push for the position to become full time.
Fink said she believes the recent raid by law enforcement officers of the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth has placed renewed emphasis on the importance of LGBT liaisons. In the wake of the raid, the Fort Worth Police Department appointed an LGBT liaison officer for the first time in its history, Officer Sara Straten. And the administrator of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said he’s committed to appointing one for his agency.
Liaison officers, who typically oversee diversity training on sexual orientation, attend special events and generally function as go-betweens, are viewed as critical to bridging the historically deep divide between gays and police.
"I think that’s absolutely a great thing for our community," Fink said of the addition of liaison officers at FWPD and TABC. "It would be beneficial every if municipality and county in North Texas took this opportunity to say, ‘Hey, are we doing the best we can in this area?’ And if they don’t have a liaison, to establish one."
Sgt. Shelley Knight, LGBT liaison officer for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, contacted Dallas Voice last week in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid in search of additional opportunities to meet with groups in the LGBT community.
Knight, an out lesbian who’s an 18-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, said she recently took over the liaison position from Executive Chief Deputy Jesse Flores, who’s straight.
"I’m more active doing things with the community than the chief that was in charge of it was, and he’s really busy, and so I volunteered my services," Knight said. "I’m here to do whatever needs to be done."
The sheriff’s department’s liaison position was the subject of controversy when Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a lesbian herself, created it in 2006. For example, the Dallas Morning News published a column titled, "Is sheriff reaching out or pandering?" But among other things, the sheriff’s department oversees the county jail, meaning it must deal with issues related to housing LGBT inmates.
The only other local public safety agency with an LGBT liaison is Dallas Fire-Rescue, which created the assignment at the behest of DGLA in 2008. DFR in the past has been criticized for its treatment of patients with HIV/AIDS. The department’s LGBT liaison, Sherry Durant, is straight because DFR reportedly doesn’t have any openly LGBT employees.
Having an openly LGBT liaison is viewed as preferable due to increased levels of trust and understanding, and because part of the goal of the position is to allow other members of a department to feel comfortable coming out.
"I don’t want to let people off the hook by saying it has to be openly LGBT or no liaison, but I think it’s ideal," Fink said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 24, 2009.
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