Discrimination and Harassment by Law Enforcement Officers in the LGBT Community

March 2015

Discrimination and harassment by law enforcement is an ongoing and pervasive problem for LGBT people. These experiences make it difficult for officers to effectively police in their communities. Governments and law enforcement departments can adopt laws and policies to improve relationships between law enforcement and LGBT citizens.

Discrimination and harassment of LGBT people by law enforcement has been documented in surveys, court cases, academic studies, and the media.
LGBT people of color, youth, and transgender people are particularly vulnerable to profiling, entrapment, and violence by law enforcement.
Mistreatment of LGBT people breaks down trust, inhibits communication, and prevents officers from effectively protecting and serving their communities.

Executive Summary

Discrimination and harassment by law enforcement based on sexual orientation and gender identity is an ongoing and pervasive problem in LGBT communities. Such discrimination impedes effective policing in these communities by breaking down trust, inhibiting communication, and preventing officers from effectively protecting and serving the communities they police. While a patchwork of state, local and federal laws provides some protection against certain forms of discrimination, there is no nationwide federal statute that comprehensively and consistently prohibits discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

This report presents research demonstrating that LGBT individuals and communities face profiling, discrimination, and harassment at the hands of law enforcement officers. Data from a wide range of sources show that such harassment and discrimination are greatest for LGBT people of color, transgender persons, and youth.

Key Findings

  • The 9.5 million LGBT Americans are a part of every local and state community, and part of the diverse communities that law enforcement seeks to engage to develop stronger community support and trust.
  • The United States has had a significant history of mistreatment of LGBT people by law enforcement, including profiling, entrapment, discrimination, and harassment by officers; victimization that often was ignored by law enforcement; and discrimination and even blanket exclusions from being hired by law enforcement agencies. The Department of Justice recently summarized this history of discrimination against LGBT people in its brief to the United States Supreme Court in Windsor v. United States.
  • Discrimination and harassment by law enforcement officers based on sexual orientation and gender identity continues to be pervasive throughout the United States.
    • For example, a 2014 report on a national survey of LGBT people and people living with HIV found that 73% of respondents had face-to-face contact with the police in the past five years. Of those respondents, 21% reported encountering hostile attitudes from officers, 14% reported verbal assault by the police, 3%reported sexual harassment, and 2% reported physical assault at the hands of law enforcement officers. Police abuse, neglect, and misconduct were consistently reported at higher frequencies by respondents of color and transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents.
    • A 2013 report focused on anti-LGBT violence that occurred in the previous year found that of the LGBT violence survivors surveyed who interacted with police, 48% reported that they had experienced police misconduct, including unjustified arrest, use of excessive force and entrapment. Additionally, police officers accounted for 6% of all offenders reported by respondents; of offenders who were personally unknown to the victim, police made up 23%.
    • A 2012 report examining the interactions of law enforcement with Latina transgender women in Los Angeles County found that two-thirds of the women reported that they had been verbally harassed by law enforcement, 21% reported that they had been physically assaulted by law enforcement, and 24% reported that they had been sexually assaulted by law enforcement.
    • A 2011 study that reported findings from the largest survey of transgender people to date found that 22% of transgender respondents reported that they had been harassed by law enforcement because of bias, and 6% reported having been physically assaulted by an officer. Additionally, nearly half of respondents
      (46%) reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance.

Individual complaints of discrimination also document examples of police misconduct against LGBT people. These reports include instances of verbal harassment, physical abuse so severe that it required medical attention, and rape.

Such discrimination, harassment, and abuse undermine effective policing by:

    • Weakening community trust: A recent study of gay and bisexual identified men found that 40% believed that contacting the police in response to a violent incident from an intimate partner would be unhelpful or very unhelpful, and 59% believed that the police would be less helpful to a gay or bisexual man than to a heterosexual woman in the same situation.
    • Reducing reporting of crimes by victims in the LGBT community: A 2013 report on hate violence against the LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities found that only 56% of survivors of hate violence reported such incidents to the police.
    • Challenging law enforcement’s ability to effectively meet the needs of members of their communities: A 2014 report on a national survey of 2,376 LGBT people and people living with HIV found that over a third of crime victim’s complaints to the police were not fully addressed.

Key recommendations to prevent discrimination by law enforcement based on sexual orientation and gender identity include:

  • Adopting internal policies and practices in state and local police departments, including:
    • Nondiscrimination policies and zero-tolerance harassment policies,
    • Policies requiring officers to respect individuals’ gender identity and ensure safety in arrest processing, searches, and placement in police custody, and explicitly prohibiting searches conducted for the purpose of assigning gender based on anatomical features;
    • LGBT sensitivity, diversity and specialization trainings,
    • Outreach and liaisons to the LGBT community,
    • Civilian complaint review boards with investigators and adjudicators specifically trained to address the types of police profiling and abuse experienced by LGBTQ people, including sexual harassment and assault and
    • Prohibiting discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or gender identity against law enforcement personnel.
  • Adopting and enforcing federal level protections, including:
    • Nondiscrimination requirements in Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants, which provide funding to more than 13,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, and other sources of government funding,
    • Enforcement of new federal bias-based profiling prohibitions that are inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity and expansion of those provisions to more law enforcement agencies through the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act with sexual orientation and gender identity explicitly included,
    • Increased data collection through anonymous surveys such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics Police Contact Survey on police searches and seizures to analyze the scope of bias-based profiling practices and identify target regions and agencies in need of nondiscrimination training and policies.
  • Enforcing Existing Legal Protections. Several existing laws protect LGBT people to some extent, including constitutional provisions and state and local nondiscrimination laws.
  • Adopting New Legal Protections. Laws explicitly prohibiting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination can be enacted at the federal, state and local levels.

Download the full report

Discrimination and Harassment by Law Enforcement Officers in the LGBT Community