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New transgender policy and sensitivity training at St. Petersburg police timely after India Clarke murder

Published Sep. 5, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Standing in front of a roomful of police officers to educate them on the most sensitive of issues, Chris Rudisill started with the basics.

A transgender man was born female and identifies as a male, and vice versa. A person's internal gender makes them feel as if they were "born in the wrong body," but not all transgender people have made the physical transition to their right body. And don't ever underestimate the power of a simple pronoun.

"Your identity is the most important thing to everyone in this room," said Rudisill, director of LGBT programs at Metro Wellness and Community Center in St. Petersburg. "We have to realize it's the most important thing to a transgender person, too."

Friday morning's training session for about 50 of the department's supervisors and field training officers comes two days after St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway announced a new policy for how to interact with transgender people.

"We just want to make sure that officers have the right tools in their toolbox so when we stop someone who is transgender, we treat them very professionally and with respect," Holloway said. "Times are changing, and we need to change with the times."

The process was already under way when 25-year-old India Clarke's body was found in a Tampa park July 21. Law enforcement identified her by the name and gender she was born with even though she had identified as female for years. Backlash from across the country followed, sparking a discussion about how law enforcement handles the identities of transgender people.

The new St. Petersburg policy requires officers to address a transgender person using his or her stated gender identity, including the preferred pronouns. The gender identity might be clear from clothing or other cues, but if not, an officer unsure about which pronoun to use should ask the person which they prefer. Gender information on government issued identification and other documents may be used as presumptive evidence of gender identity "only in the absence of self-identification by the person or some other obvious expression of gender identity."

The policy requires written reports to include a transgender person's legal name and list his or her preferred name as an alias. The first line of any report narrative must state the complainant, witness or suspect is transgender. After that, the correct pronouns for the person's gender identity should be used.

The policy also outlines how to interact with detainees. Officers of either sex can do immediate, cursory patdowns of transgender detainees. A prisoner cannot be transported in the same vehicle with non-transgender prisoners unless they are arrested as a result of the same incident or there is a separate compartment that prevents visual and physical interaction.

In Clarke's case, initial reports referenced her given name, Samuel Elijah Clarke, and said she was a man found in women's clothing, despite friends and family sharing that she'd identified as female. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and local media were lambasted for misreporting her gender identity.

"A lot of mistakes were made with India Clarke," Rudisill told Friday's group. "It revictimized her by taking away her identity."

The St. Petersburg department is the first of the largest Tampa Bay agencies to implement a transgender policy and provide specific transgender sensitivity training, though some are moving in that direction. The Tampa Police Department, for example, has three LGBT liaisons, and the department plans to add gender identity to its policy on searching inmates and its department's diversity training.

Clarke's case reinforced the need to take action, said Lt. Markus Hughes, the LGBT liasion for St. Petersburg police.

"If it prevents anyone from our agency making the same mistakes, I think it was worth it," Hughes said.

Times staff writer Katie Mettler contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.