Straten says officers conducting investigations into Rainbow Lounge raid are people of integrity, encourages community to give them ‘time to do their job right’
When Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead put out the word that he was looking for an officer to be the liaison between the department and the city’s LGBT community, Officer Sara Straten didn’t hesitate to send an e-mail volunteering for the position.
That was before she went online and started reading some of the media coverage and blog discussions about the tensions between the Fort Worth PD and the LGBT community over the June 28 raid at the Rainbow Lounge, she said during an interview Monday with Dallas Voice.
"Maybe if I had read all the stuff online first, I wouldn’t have volunteered," she said with a slight smile. "But I think sometimes God just sets you on a certain path, and you follow that path. Something just told me to volunteer to do this.
"I think it is a good thing to do, for the department and the community, and I think it is the right time in my career to do it," she added. "It’s just so very important, especially right now."
Straten, who now works as a neighborhood police officer on the city’s far north side, has been a Fort Worth police officer for 17 years. Although she knew for most of those years that she was lesbian, she only started coming out to her supervisors and fellow officers about three years ago.
The delay, she said, " was more about my own stereotypes than anything else. … I was afraid to be out. I thought [the other officers] wouldn’t accept me. I worked the gang unit back then. That’s a very dangerous job, and I was worried. What if I needed backup and no one came to back me up?"
But when she decided to adopt two children, and she knew that she had to be more open and honest about her life.
"I decided that if I was going to have kids, and if I wanted my kids to not be ashamed of me, than I had to start by not being ashamed of myself," Straten said.
The result, she added, has been a very positive experience, with her fellow officers and her supervisors offering support and encouragement throughout.
Still, Straten said, she was "choosy" about whom she chose to share that personal information with. "I would pick and choose who I wanted to have the conversation with," she said.
Then the police chief took her up on her offer to be the department’s first LGBT liaison, "and all of the sudden, I was jumping up out of the closet, waving the rainbow flag."
And again, she said, she was met with nothing but support.
"I have been surprised, really, at how supportive and positive everyone has been. I have had so many people come up and pat me on the back and tell me how proud they are of me. I have gotten so many calls and e-mails, even from people I don’t know. It’s been a very, very positive experience."
Still, Straten is stepping into her new role during a time of crisis. The raid at the Rainbow Lounge has put the Fort Worth police force square in the middle of intense scrutiny from the national LGBT community — and in the glare of the media spotlight.
For someone like Straten, who describes herself as "not a political person" and someone who "speaks from the heart," it is a nerve-wracking experience.
"I know how important this is," she said. "This is new to me, and I want to make sure I get it right."
As the department’s liaison with the Fort Worth LGBT community, Straten said it is her job to be a conduit, to "be available for people in the community to talk to, to keep the lines of communication open" between the LGBT community and the police.
"I am not an investigator [participating in the department’s two internal investigations into the Rainbow Lounge incident]. I want to be the impartial person in the middle who makes communication easier," she said.
And one of the first messages she wants to convey to the community, Straten said, is that they can trust Chief Halstead to be fair.
"He made himself available from the very beginning, and he has been unfairly portrayed in a lot of the media," Straten said of the police chief. "He was really getting hammered, but he kept talking to people. He thought it was more important to keep the lines of communication open even though he was getting hammered. I think that shows a lot of character."
Straten also said that in her first meeting with Halstead after she volunteered for the liaison position, "his first concern was for me. He wanted to make sure I was all right with everything. … I have not felt for a second that I’m out here by myself on this."
She also said that she believes that investigators with the department’s Internal Affairs Division and its Major Case Squad — each of which is conducting a separate investigation into the Rainbow Lounge raid — will be fair and thorough in their job.
"I know some of these investigators personally, and I believe they are people who have integrity. I trust them to do this investigation thoroughly and with impartiality," she said.
But Straten stressed that the community has to give the investigators time to do their job and do it right.
"It takes time, and I hope people will give them time," she said. "Getting to the truth is the most important thing, and that takes time.
"I want people to know that they can trust the police department. We will get to the bottom of this," she said. "We have a huge opportunity here. Appointing a liaison is an amazing thing. If we can all just stop a minute and calm down, we have a huge chance to pull this all together and really work on things both sides want to see changed."
And the opportunities extend far beyond the current situation over the Rainbow Lounge to possibilities to enrich both sides of the equation, Straten said.
"I hope that people in the community will come and talk to me, ask me any questions they have. Call me or send me an e-mail," she said. "I’ll talk to anybody who wants to talk to me. I want people to get to know me, and you don’t get to know people just by reading things about them. You’ve got to talk to them. And that’s why I am here."
Fort Worth Police Department LGBT liaison Officer Sara Straten can be reached by phone at 817-475-3630, and by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.