Measure would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Houston

Charter amendment could also allow DP benefits for city workers

DANIEL WILLIAMS  |  Contributing Writer

HOUSTON — Long-brewing plans to place a city-wide non-discrimination policy before Houston voters became public this week.

Since December a coalition of organizations and leaders have been working to draft a city charter amendment that would make it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment or public accommodations on the basis of  “age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or physical characteristic.”

The amendment would also remove anti-LGBT language added to the Houston city charter in 1985 and 2001 — which could allow the City Council to vote to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who famously became the only out LGBT person elected mayor of a major American city in 2009, has declined to comment on the proposed charter amendment until the language is finalized. She told the Houston Chronicle: “I believe it’s important for the city of Houston to send a signal to the world that we welcome everybody and that we treat everybody equally, and depending on the elements of what was actually in it, I might or might not support it,”

According to Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman, the prospect of Houston voters approving the non-discrimination amendment has ramifications for efforts to pass similar measures in the state Legislature.

“Nondiscrimination in Houston builds a better case for us when we go for nondiscrimination in Austin,” said Coleman. “To be able to tell representatives that they represent areas that already support these efforts is very helpful.”

The cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all already have similar nondiscrimination ordinances and offer DP benefits to employees.

But Houston’s form of governance makes this effort unique. While the City Council is empowered to pass city ordinances covering issues of discrimination, they can be overturned by popular vote if those opposing the ordinance collect 20,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

That was the case in 1985 after Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire pushed through the council the city’s first protections for gay and lesbian Houstonians (no protections were provided for the bisexual or transgender communities).

A coalition of right-wing voters led by Louie Welch, then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, was able to place the issue on a city-wide ballot, claiming the policy “promoted the homosexual lifestyle.” The group also recruited a “straight slate” of candidates to run against City Council members who had favored the protections, with Welch running against Whitmire.

The public vote on nondiscrimination was held in June 1985 and Welch’s forces prevailed, but the city’s temperament had changed by the time of the City Council and mayoral races in November. A comment of Welch’s that the solution to the AIDS crisis was to “shoot the queers” was aired on local TV and few in Houston wished to be associated with him after that. The “straight slate” failed to capture a single City Council seat and Whitmire remained mayor, but the defeat of the city’s nondiscrimination policy remained.

By 1998 Houston had changed: Annise Parker was serving as the city’s first out lesbian city council member and Houston boasted the state’s first out gay judge, John Paul Barnich. Mayor Lee Brown, sensing the change, issued an executive order protecting LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. But the city had not changed that much. Councilman Rob Todd led efforts to fight the order in court, arguing that since voters rejected city-wide protections from discrimination in 1985, it was inappropriate for the mayor to institute them without voter approval. The city spent the next three years defending the policy in court, finally emerging victorious.

The joy of that 2001 victory would be shortlived, however. That year Houston’s voters approved another amendment to the city charter, this time prohibiting the city from providing domestic partner benefits for city employees. In a narrow defeat, just over 51 percent of voters decided that the city should not offer competitive benefits.

The current proposed non-discrimination amendment would remove the language added in 1985 and 2001. While it would provide non-discrimination protections it would not require the city to offer benefits of any kind to the spouses of LGBT city employees, leaving that question back in the hands of the City Council.

The organizers of the current effort are confident that this year is the year for victory.

Noel Freeman, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which is spearheading the effort, explains that the previous votes occurred in “non-presidential years,”when voter turnout in general is low, and conservative voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate.

Additionally, polling by Equality Texas in 2010 showed that 80 percent of Houstonians support employment protections for gay and lesbian people.

In order to place the non-discrimination amendment on the November ballot the coalition supporting it will need to collect 20,000 signatures of registered Houston voters and submit them to the city clerk. Freeman says that the final charter amendment language is still under consideration and that once it is finalized the group will begin collecting signatures.

Even former Councilman Todd, who once fought the city’s policy of non-discrimination for LGBT employees, supports the current effort.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

FW police chief enacts anti-bias policing policy

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead

LGBT leader praises Halstead’s initiative, says ties between city, LGBT community continue to strengthen

TAMMYE NASH  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH —  Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead has implemented a new policy banning “bias-based policing” in his department, and Fort Worth LGBT community leader Jon Nelson this week praised the new policy as “a very positive move.”

“We didn’t discuss this with him [Halstead]. Nobody pressured him to do this. He did it on his own,” Nelson said of the new policy. “It’s as clear as it can be. It puts his employees on notice that they have to act without bias, and there are specific ramifications if they fail in that. I say, good for him.”

The policy, which Halstead issued Friday, Feb. 4, notes that “bias-based policing is prohibited in both enforcement of the law and delivery of police services.”

Any officer who violates the policy can be fired immediately.

The policy, the full text of which is available online at DallasVoice.com, reads: “Officers shall not use race, color, gender, age, national origin, religion, disability, economic status, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, transgender status, membership in a cultural group or an individual’s ability/inability to speak English as the criteria for determining when or how to take enforcement action or provide police services.”

Jon Nelson

In an e-mail interview this week, Halstead said that although officers were already banned from acting on personal bias while on duty, the new policy is intended to reinforce that ban.

“The policy basically incorporates language located throughout departmental General Orders and consolidates it into one succinct order that clearly defines what bias-based policing means and strictly prohibits it,” Halstead said.

He also said the new policy was not implemented as a response to any particular incident, including the June, 2009, raid on the Rainbow Lounge gay bar by Fort Worth officers and agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Instead, Halstead said, “It is a proactive step to continue building trust in the community, which is essential for public and officer safety.”

Halstead said that the new policy has been in the works since last summer when he asked his chief of staff, Lt. Paul Henderson, to research the idea and see if any other major cities had similar policies before drafting the Fort Worth policy.

“Creating policy can take a significant amount of time,” Halstead said. “We have to be careful to ensure we are not in conflict with any laws or regulations. And once it was drafted, we circulated it to our community relations officers, police leaders in our diverse associations and our law department to provide input and feedback.”

Once the final draft was complete, the order went into effect on Feb. 4.

“Although no specific reason behind the timing exists, it is appropriate and holds special meaning that the order went into effect at the beginning of Black History Month,” Halstead said.

The chief said that any officer who witnesses a possible incidence of biased policing is required to report the incident to his or her supervisor. The supervisor then reports the incident to the department’s Internal Affairs Division, which will investigate the allegations.

Citizens should report such violations directly to Internal Affairs, the chief said.

“Internal Affairs investigates all allegations dealing with discrimination in the workplace, as well as the city’s Human Resources Department,” Halstead said. “Internal Affairs is the lead investigative entity for allegations of discrimination regarding employees as it pertains to interactions with the public. If it is found that any criminality exists on the part of a police employee, the chief’s Special Investigative Unit would take the lead for filing criminal charges if applicable.”

Halstead also noted that his department is “in the process of putting together a hate or bias crimes alert program” through which community members who subscribe to the program will be notified of any hate or bias crimes that are reported. He said that the department is “in the process of completing the computer program necessary to build the service.”

In 2010, Halstead said, “six actual hate crimes” were investigated by Major Case detectives, the officers tasked with handling such cases.

“We use the word ‘actual’ because the definition of a hate crime is very specific regarding the primary motive for a criminal act, and many times what is reported as a hate crime does not meet the statute’s criteria,” Halstead said.

“In the future, we are looking to begin tracking ‘bias’ incidents, meaning that if any actions or statements are made as a part of a crime, but the crime itself does not meet the criteria of a hate crime, we want to be able to track those as ‘bias incidents,’” he said.

Halstead added that the new ban on bias-based policing is not directly related to the hate crime alert program, but is instead “more related to the protection of individual rights of our communities and to provide a clear departmental position that bias-based policing will not be tolerated.”

Although many LGBT community leaders were angered with Halstead’s initial response to the Rainbow Lounge raid, most now consider the police chief a valuable friend to the community.

“He is a human being, just like anyone else. We all make mistakes,” Nelson said of Halstead. “But he has gone from ‘Let’s just take a deep breath’ to, on his own, coming up with this new policy, a policy that has real teeth. That is a long way to come.

“I think that every step he has taken has brought the police department and our community closer together, starting with [the appointment of openly lesbian Officer] Sara Straten [as the department’s liaison to the LGBT community],” Nelson said. “That’s not just window dressing. … I think the chief wants his police force to be fundamentally fair, and he’s willing to buck the Police Officers Association to do it.”

The Police Officers Association is the FWPD officers’ union, an organization, Nelson said, with “tremendous political clout” whose “only concern so far has been to protect their own, even officers convicted of DWI and killing people with cars.”

Some community leaders have also suggested that it was pressure from the Police Officers Association that kept Halstead from being able to hand down stiffer discipline to officers involved in the Rainbow Lounge raid.

Halstead said this week that while his leadership approach “has not necessarily changed, I continue to learn from mistakes and experience personal growth. True leadership demands constant evaluation and adjustment in order to provide the best service possible. …  It also requires some risk-taking to implement progressive change within any organization.”

Halstead said that he believes “the culture of policing” is changing at the national level as the diversity of the country grows, and progressive police departments are “taking proactive steps to facilitate those changes as quickly as possible.”

“My intent when I was hired as the Fort Worth police chief has always been to focus on service and to provide an organizational model of ‘service with respect.’ That has not changed,” Halstead said. “I am proud that our police department is being viewed as a progressive policing model and remains on of the leaders in community policing today.”

Nelson said he believes that the strengthening relationship between Halstead’s department and the LGBT community is mirrored by the strengthening relationship between the community and city government over all.

“The bottom line is, we’ve gotten used to each other. There is a level of trust here now,” Nelson said. “They [city officials] understand that the community, that Fairness Fort Worth for example, will not be reluctant to stand behind the police chief when he does something like this. Nor will we be reticent to voice opposition if necessary.

“But we won’t do it by calling names or demonizing anybody,” he added. “We will do it the way the First Amendment meant for it to be done. We will voice our opinions, and we will take action when necessary.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.

—  John Wright

The nationwide ramifications of losing three judges in Iowa, and crazy Maggie weighs in

Steve Silberman writes about the nationwide ramifications of NOM’s successful effort to remove three judges in Iowa who ruled in favor of marriage equality. You’ll note that someone who sure seems to be the real Maggie Gallagher weighed into Steve’s comment section.

Never mind that the removal of the judges threatens to impede the operation of the judiciary in Iowa, denying justice not only to the minority targeted by NOM’s mystery donors, but to anyone else in the state court system. Never mind that the state’s governor, Chet Culver — also defeated by a Republican on Tuesday — is unlikely to fill those vacancies on the bench before his term ends in January, further tampering with the due process of law in the state. Never mind that John Adams, one of the founding fathers who people like Gingrich and Sarah Palin like to invoke at any opportunity, believed that a judiciary protected from the political storms that rage around the contentious issues of the day is one of the foundations of a stable democracy:

The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that. The judges, therefore, should be always men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men.

The sweeping ramifications of NOM’s success in Iowa this week are not lost on legal authorities. “What is so disturbing about this is that it really might cause judges in the future to be less willing to protect minorities out of fear that they might be voted out of office,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, told the New York Times. “Something like this really does chill other judges.”

You’ll note, via the link above, that “Maggie” says that John Adams, who alive from 1735-1826, probably agreed with her about marriage equality. Putting aside the fact that Maggie Gallagher takes pride in having a point of view that was popular in the late 1700s, I wonder if John Adams agrees with Maggie about slavery too (while Adams refused to own slaves, he did oppose emancipation – how are you on emancipation Maggie?)




AMERICAblog Gay

—  admin