In defense of Fort Worth’s response to the Rainbow Lounge raid

Jon Nelson

By Jon Nelson  |  Fairness Fort Worth

I read with interest the Rev. Stephen Sprinkle’s commentary contrasting the Atlanta outcome with Fort Worth’s after raids at gay bars in each city. He concludes that “Factors contributing to the non-resolution of the Fort Worth police raid may include a less-than-robust defense of bar patrons by the Rainbow Lounge ownership at the time of the bust, and the less aggressive approach Fort Worth gay leaders employed to bring the city and the police department to account.”

The headline contrasts the $1 million settlement with none in Fort Worth. Although the Rev. Sprinkle doesn’t mention this as a contrast, I’ll deal with it anyway. The Atlanta suit was filed by a private attorney on behalf of 19 patrons of the club and no such lawsuit has yet been filed in Fort Worth .The LGBT community formed Fairness Fort Worth at the outset and stepped forward to represent the community. The injustice experienced was against the patrons and not the bar owner nor any employees of the bar. This contrasts sharply with the facts in Atlanta where the police targeted both the bar and its patrons.

The Rev. Sprinkle’s one striking contrast is his belief that the Fort Worth Police Department has never issued an apology and Atlanta has. I have attended at least three meeting where Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead has publicly apologized; the last one was in front of the Rainbow Lounge at a news conference held on Nov. 5, 2009.

The Rev. Sprinkle writes that there has been a “non-resolution” of the raid on the Rainbow lounge. Let me share with you what has happened since the raid and, in the words of the Rev. Sprinkle, “You be the judge”:

—  admin

Dallas police ‘ready to roll’ for gay Pride

DPD Deputy Chief Malik Aziz

Despite a recent rash of violent robberies involving gay bar patrons in Oak Lawn, a Dallas police official indicated Wednesday that people shouldn’t be at all reluctant to visit the area during the upcoming gay Pride weekend.

“We’re ready to roll,” said Deputy Chief Malik Aziz, who’s over DPD’s Northwest Division, which includes the Cedar Springs strip. “We’re going to make sure the area’s safe.”

Aziz made the comments following the monthly meeting of the Oak Lawn Apartment Managers and Stakeholders Crime Watch group, at the Oak Lawn Library.

During the meeting, Crime Watch members criticized DPD officials for failing to promptly notify them about last week’s aggravated robbery on Dickason Avenue, just a block from the Cedar Springs strip.

Nancy Weinberger, the leader of the Crime Watch group, said she didn’t learn about the Friday night incident until Tuesday.

“My issue is we’re not getting the information about assaults and armed robberies that happen in this neighborhood,” Weinberger told police officials during the meeting. “If somebody gets armed robbed or attacked in the neighborhood, I want to know about it.”

Aziz responded that there needs to be a “50-50 partnership” between police and citizens, meaning those who want information need to sign up for e-mails from DailyCrimeReport.com or search the department’s public website at DallasPolice.net. He said police officials can’t always send out alerts about every violent offense right away, partly because they don’t have the technological infrastructure to do so.

“I’ve got 50 percent, I’m going to work on that,” Aziz told the group. “The other 50 percent is you.”

Aziz said after the meeting that police have no leads in Friday’s robbery, which occurred in the same block where Jimmy Lee Dean was brutally attacked two years ago. Aziz said he’s “perplexed” by the incident and frustrated that despite an overall drop in violent crime in the area this year, police continue to battle the perception that it’s unsafe around the bars.

“I think we need more eyes and ears and more engagement in this neighborhood,” he said. “Unfortunately we can’t be in every place at once.”

Aziz said one way for people to get involved is to sign up for the Volunteers In Patrol program. They can do so by calling 214-670-6561.

—  John Wright

UPDATED: Man robbed at gunpoint just 1 block from strip; suspects make off with $500 in cash

Between the shooting of Doug Tull and another holdup last week on Travis Street, it sure seems as though there’s been a rash of gun-involved robberies targeting gay bar patrons of late.

The most recent robbery occurred at 10:15 p.m. Friday at 4000 Dickason Ave., which is at the intersection of Reagan Street, just one block from the Cedar Springs strip.

The suspects pointed a gun at the 21-year-old white male victim and demanded his property, before making off with $500 in cash and a cell phone valued at $500, according to police reports.

Sr. Cpl. Kevin Janse, a spokesman for the Dallas Police Department, said Tuesday that no arrests have been made in the case. The suspects are described as two Latin males in their 20s, Janse said. One is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and was wearing a white shirt at the time of the robbery.

“There is no evidence that links this to any other robberies in the area,” Janse said.

UPDATE: The victim, who asked not to be identified, said he had walked around the corner from JR.’s  to retrieve his keys from a friend’s car that was parked on Dickason Avenue. He said he was leaning into the car when the two suspects came out of nowhere and put a gun to his head.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, are they going to shoot me? Is this a hate crime or am I about to get mugged?’” he said. “I had no idea what was going on. It was the quickest thing ever, but I’ve never been more scared in my life.”

The victim, who’s gay, said he thinks bars in the area need to do a better job of making it safe.

“I really feel like the bars need to step up their game,” he said. “They need to invest in the people who spend the money, and they need to protect them.”

As he was running back to JR’s, the victim said he saw one of the suspects fleeing behind Woody’s and notified a security guard. “The security guard wouldn’t do anything. He told me I needed to chill out.”

The victim said he was carrying a large amount of cash because he was in a fender bender earlier in the day and had been unable to go to the bank.

“I was alone. It was stupid,” he said, adding that the suspects must have thought they hit the lottery. “I would never even think that that area would be a safety issue.”

The victim said he doesn’t plan to go back to the area anytime soon.

“You just have to be careful, especially with the whole gay Pride thing coming up,” he said. “It’s just scary. I don’t even know how it happened. It’s kind of like a dream, a bad, bad dream — a nightmare.”

—  John Wright

RL raid anniversary: What a difference a year makes

Fort Worth community leaders, police officials look back at 12 months of change in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid

Tammye Nash | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

THEN AND NOW | A year ago, angry LGBT people protested outside the Rainbow Lounge just hours after a raid on the bar by Fort Worth police officers and TABC agents. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

What a difference a year makes.

On June 28, 2009, seven officers with the Fort Worth Police Department joined two agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in a raid on a newly-opened gay bar in Fort Worth called the Rainbow Lounge.

On June 28, 2010, the Fort Worth police were back at Rainbow Lounge. Only this time, instead of making arrests the officers were sharing a barbecue meal with community leaders and bar patrons and celebrating the progress the city has made over the last 12 months in improving the relationship between Fort Worth and its LGBT community.

And that progress, most in Fort Worth agree, has been remarkable.

Todd Camp, co-founder of Fort Worth’s Q Cinema LGBT film festival, was at the Rainbow Lounge celebrating his birthday with friends when the raid occurred. It was Camp, along with Chuck Potter, Thomas Anable and others, who used e-mail and social networking sites like Facebook to spread the word about the raid almost immediately.

They also put their outrage to work to organize two protests — one that Sunday afternoon outside the bar and a second later that evening outside the Tarrant County Courthouse — and to rally people to attend the next meeting of the Fort Worth City Council.
Camp said recently that he has been pleased to see the way that Fort Worth — its LGBT community, its police department and its city officials — have stepped up to the challenge and worked together not just to mend fences, but also break down barriers.

This week, Rainbow Lounge owner J.R. Schrock, left, and bar manager Randy Norman, right, played host as LGBT community members packed the bar for a barbecue and meet-and-greet with FWPD officers, from Chief Jeff Halstead to beat patrol officers. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

“I think, for me personally, the biggest accomplishment of the past year has been the fact that the city of Fort Worth has become aware that they have a gay community that has a voice with some emotion and power behind it, that it is a community that is willing to speak out when something is wrong,” Camp said.

“The City Council has stepped up to the plate and made a lot of fantastic changes. And there have been some really good changes in the police department, in the way they do business. It has really raised their [the police department’s] awareness,” Camp continued. “It took something going horribly wrong to open their eyes. But I feel like now, for the first time, the city and the police realize that there are gay people living here and that we are valuable members of society. … The city learned a lot about a vibrant part of its community.”

The incident has also, Camp said, raised awareness in the LGBT community.

“There was so much ignorance, and not just on the side of the city officials and law enforcement. It was on our side, too. We all learned a lot about the law, about what was acceptable and what was not acceptable.”

Police Chief Jeff Halstead agreed that both sides have learned valuable lessons from and about each other in the last year.

“We all decided to get past our emotions, and we’ve learned to respect each other’s feelings and opinions,” Halstead said. “And it’s definitely been a worthwhile investment for us all to make.”

The chief said he has seen a marked difference in the way the LGBT community responds to the police department since the raid occurred, and a difference in the way his officers see the LGBT community.

“I think people in the community feel like they have actually built friendships in the police department, and not just with [LGBT Liaison Officer Sara Stratten]. I think they feel like their ideas and opinions will be heard,” he said.

Halstead had been on the job as chief of the Forth Worth PD for less than a year when the Rainbow Lounge raid happened. And in his first public comments on the raid, Halstead told a reporter that patrons in the bar that night had made “sexually suggestive movements” toward the officers, and that he was proud of the restraint the officers had shown in the situation.

Halstead later apologized for his remarks, but not before the comments made him the focal point for much of the community’s anger and outrage. But at the barbecue this week, and when the chief attended a screening at the recent Q Cinema film festival, it was obvious that Halstead’s efforts to reach out to and understand the LGBT community had overcome the anger.

Camp said that “one of the greatest moments for me” of the last year came when Q Cinema previewed the recently-completed trailer for Robert Camina’s documentary, “Raid at the Rainbow Lounge.”

“[City Councilman] Joel Burns was in the audience, and Chief Halstead was there with his wife. There had been a lot of hand-wringing and worry over the trailer, because it focuses on the community’s immediate gut reaction to the raid. It’s kind of harsh, and [Camina] was a little bit worried about how the chief would react,” Camp said.

But Halstead took it all in stride, he said.

“I think it showed some tremendous courage for him to be there and see that trailer. He was painted as a villain early on, but he’s not a bad guy,” Camp said of Halstead. “He just had some learning to do, and he stepped up and was there and was supportive.

STOPPING TO REMEMBER | Fairness Fort Worth President Thomas Anable, left, and Q Cinema co-founder Todd Camp were among the community leaders who attended a barbecue on Monday, June 28, at Rainbow Lounge to commemorate the anniversary of the 2009 raid on the bar and celebrate the progress the community has made over the last 12 months. Anable and Camp were both at Rainbow Lounge when the raid occurred, and both helped organize the community’s response. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

“I also think it says a lot that the chief of police was there for the opening night of an LGBT film festival,” Camp continued. “It meant a lot to everybody that he was there. … It’s a sign that things really are changing for the better.”

One of the first — and perhaps, most important — of those changes for the better came less than a month after the raid when Halstead announced that Fort Worth Officer Sara Straten had been appointed interim liaison to the LGBT community. By the end of the year, the appointment had been made permanent and Straten had been reassigned from her community patrol duties to the public information office.

Straten acknowledged recently that while she is glad to be the LGBT liaison officer, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride.

At first, Straten said, people in the LGBT community saw her as being too supportive of Halstead, a man they still saw as the enemy. But as time passed, both she and the chief have built not only solid working relationships within the community, but friendships as well.

There have been very concrete advances with the police department, Straten said, starting with the implementation of a new policy on bar checks that went into effect on Sept. 1 last year. The new policy specifies detailed steps for officers to follow, and designed to lessen the potentially adversarial relationship between officers, bar owners and staff and patrons.

Straten also praised the new diversity training implemented within the police department that puts more focus on LGBT issues than before. She said she and Gil Flores taught the first diversity training session, and that officers in the class “asked a lot of good questions.”

“The mayor and the chief both went through the training themselves about a month ago, and the chief was there at the first session,” she said.

Officers also participated in the Tarrant County Gay Pride Parade and Picnic last October, and the chief and his wife attended the picnic.

The atmosphere for LGBT officers within the department has improved significantly, too, Straten said.

Before she volunteered for the liaison position, Straten was not out at work. In fact, when she did step forward to volunteer, she became the first officially “out” officer on the force. Since then, a number of other officers have come out, but Straten says the credit for that goes to the chief’s leadership in creating a more comfortable and accepting atmosphere, and the individual officers’ courage in taking that step.

FROM PROTEST TO PARTY | The Rev. Carol West, left, and David Mack Henderson, right, both of Fairness Fort Worth, are all smiles as they talk to Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead during a barbecue and meet-and-greet with police officers at the Rainbow Lounge on Monday, June 28, the one-year anniversary of the Rainbow Lounge raid. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

“Coming out is scary. But what kept me in the closet back then was as much my own stereotyping as anything else,” she said. “I do think there has been a shift [in attitudes within the police department], but I would never say that came from me. I think it’s more about a shift in the culture at large. The younger officers coming into the force are much more accepting in general, and that changes things for everybody.”

Halstead agreed that there has been a shift within the department.

“I think that more and more, officers are feeling like they can just be themselves, gay or not,” Halstead said. “It’s taken some time, but the improving relationship with the LGBT community is helping. With the proper training and with time, it will continue to improve.”

Perhaps one of the most significant changes over the past year has been the formation and continued growth of the organization Fairness Fort Worth. The group was formed in the days immediately following the raid initially to assist in finding witnesses who saw what happened that night, and to provide those witnesses with legal advice and support in giving their statements to investigators with the Fort Worth Police Department and TABC.

Now, said Anable, the group’s newly-elected president, FFW has branched out and is intent on becoming a permanent resource for the entire community, helping to coordinate between other organizations and serving as a clearinghouse for and point of contact between the LGBT community and the community at large.

Anable said the group has secured its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and organizers held their “first real strategic planning meeting” in January. FFW is also conducting a community survey that will allow the group to compile statistics on the Fort Worth LGBT community.

“We’ve never really had an organization in Tarrant County that was really plugged into the political process, one that is able to speak consistently with one voice,” Anable said. “We are actually doing, now, things that were only talked about before. We have the momentum and the commitment to move forward with things that have only been talked about for a decade.”

Although the Fort Worth community has “a cooperative spirit” and has accomplished goals in the past — like getting the city to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting lesbians and gays — such efforts were always done quietly and in a somewhat piecemeal manner, Anable said.

But now, he added, “we have an organization that has depth and is permanent, something that won’t go away. We have lines of communication open now that we never had before. We have real credibility now. Now, they know we are a viable and valuable community.”

Members of FFW were among those who went to the Fort Worth City Council meetings following the raid. They stepped up to serve on the Diversity Task Force formed by the council that came up with a list of changes, most of which have been made already by city officials.

Among those was amending the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance to specifically protect transgender people as well as lesbians and gays. Two of the task force’s recommendations — domestic partner benefits for city employees and insurance coverage for city employees who undergo gender transition surgery — are still on the table, primarily because the city has to watch every penny during the ongoing economic crunch.

There are other plans in the works, too, Anable said, such as building an LGBT community center that would include a phone bank and a library.

And while the resources — and the need — for these advances have always existed within the community, it took what Anable called “the perfect storm” of the Rainbow Lounge raid to set the change in motion.

“It really was a perfect storm. It was the 40th anniversary of Stonewall; they were having the Stonewall anniversary march in Dallas; Todd [Camp] was there in the bar that night; I was there,” Anable said. “People saw what happened, and people were angry. And they were willing to do something about it.

“It’s amazing, really, everything that has happened,” he continued. “I mean, to go from where we were to where we are now in just 11 months — are you kidding me? It’s been amazing.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas