June is Pride Month, a time to take a positive stance against discrimination and violence towards the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and pansexual or Two-Spirit) community, who continue to struggle to overcome prejudice and to be accepted for who they are and whom they love.
A recent study found that sexual and gender minorities in the United States experienced a rate of 71.1 violent victimizations per 1,000 persons per year, compared with 19.2 per 1,000 per year among non-sexual and gender minorities and had higher rates of victimization across nearly all violent crime subtypes.
Sgt. Michael Crumrine of the Austin Police Department (Texas) knows this all too well. Crumrine is about to begin his 35th year in law enforcement and has spent two decades as an investigator of violent crimes, along with serving as a national expert and trainer. He has worked many cases involving both intimate partner and sexual violence within the LGBTQ+ community.
He identifies as a gay man and is the founding members and the current president of the Lesbian & Gay Peace Officers Association of Austin, a non-profit organization that supports LGBTQ+ sworn, civilian, and retired employees of the Austin Police Department by providing a voice for equality and strengthening relationships between the police department and Austin's LGBTQ+ communities.
We talked with him recently about dismantling long-standing barriers, intersectionality, and how he approaches his most challenging cases.*
What are the barriers faced by victims in this community that are unique to their gender identity or sexual orientation?
Our community has not had the access nor been treated with the same dignity and respect as other citizens. It wasn't all that long ago that sodomy laws were legal in every single state, therefore, criminalizing individuals whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual. Under those laws, if those acts were done between heterosexual individuals, it wasn't a crime, but if those same acts were done between individuals that are of the same sex, it was.
It wasn't until 2003 with the Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court case that those laws got overturned. That was a defining moment for the criminal justice system decriminalizing and opening doors to the queer community.
Our community didn't feel like they could access the criminal justice system when they had been victimized because doing so would potentially put them in jail themselves for the circumstances behind that, of what caused that violence. The violence has always been there. Intimate partner violence, the one thing we know absolutely without a doubt, in study after study after study, is it is not discriminatory in regard to wealth, position, accessibility, societally, anything. Intimate partner violence affects people at all and any part of their existence in any stage of society. So, it stands to reason, that there's also going to be intimate partner and sexual violence within the queer community or any other community.
The doors that allowed victims the avenue to report when they have been victimized quite often were very closed and weren't open until relatively recently, within the past few decades. It's not even been 30 years since Lawrence vs. Texas was overturned, and that was just the first stage, and it wasn't until 2015 that you had Obergefell vs. Hodges, which gave same-sex couples the right to marry. So, we're at six years into marriage equality. When any community has been marginalized, any community has been oppressed, and have not had the opportunities to have the same access to the systems that society has put in place to keep people safe, there's always going to be a hesitation in that community in accessing something that they didn't have access to before. People are very leery in the community to reach out because they have felt quite often, "If I did, I'm going to suffer another penalty."
And up until recently, that penalty was possible incarceration themselves, along with the penalties of being treated with disrespect, people not fully understanding those dynamics that are unique to the queer community, the power and control that happens in intimate partner violence or in sexual violence, or just being somebody who's queer-identified in an intimate partner violence situation and calls law enforcement. Everything that we do in law enforcement is subject to being a public document and being a public record. So, for many, that call is not just a call for help, but that call is them outing themselves, and they may not be in a place in their life right now where that is something that they wish to do, because there's still quite a bit of stigma and oppression that comes with that.
And we can talk about that not just in regard to sexual orientation, but there is also the issue of other intersectionality between their race, their gender, their orientation, their immigration status, their economic status, their education status. Those are all intersecting dynamics that affect a victim. So, you need to consider that somebody, for instance, that may be a recent immigrant to the United States from Guatemala, and who may be somebody who's queer identified, and they reach out to law enforcement, there may be these big barriers to them that were not even considered. For instance, the challenge of, "I'm an immigrant and I may be undocumented. I have the issues with race and being a person of color, my sexual orientation, or my gender identity, how does my community, how does society look at me in regard to that?”
All those things are intersecting issues that overlap and quite frankly, those could be the barriers that are too much for a victim to get past. When we engage any victim, and especially queer victims of color, we need to realize that.
In researching this topic, we learned about the “gay panic defense,” a legal tactic attempted in cases involving LGBTQ+ victims. As a law enforcement professional, have you seen this used?
The Gay Panic or the Trans Panic Defense, is basically minimizing or mitigating a suspect's actions because it was so horrific when they found out somebody was gay or that somebody was trans, that they went into a fit of passion and committed some sort of a heinous crime.
Fortunately, in my community of Austin, Texas, I've never seen it used in my time, and I do not believe it would be successful if tried in this county because there is no scientific basis behind it. It is a defense strategy that absolutely, completely discounts the validity of that victim.
The most famous case that this was used is the Matthew Shepard murder. Matthew Shepard was a young gay man in Wyoming in the late '90s who was picked up by several individuals from a bar, they took him out in a field, tied him to a barbed wire fence and beat him, raped him, bludgeoned him, and left him to die. I've had the privilege of meeting Matthew’s mother and father, Judy and Dennis, brilliant individuals, and working with them. They created the Matthew Shepard Foundation and were also very instrumental in the passage of hate crimes legislation and national hate crimes legislation that discounted the gay panic defense.
What does the law enforcement profession need to do to improve its treatment of LGBTQ+ victims and witnesses?
What needs to occur more is just more education — more education on the unique dynamics that are present in these cases. The queer community is the only community that has people of different colors, people of different physical disabilities, people of different heights, people of different religions, people of different cultures, people with different disabilities. When you look at all the other marginalized community, the queer community is the only community that encompasses all of them.
Quite often, in a lot of same sex cases, officers are unable to determine or don't put the time and effort in, or don't have the skill set to help determine who the predominant aggressor is, so they arrest both. Or they don't recognize the situation that they're in is actually one of an intimate partner violence and they just discount it as either two roommates or two friends fighting. And that's an education thing. It's just educating folks about those unique dynamics.
The vast majority of officers that I've had the privilege of working with and knowing in my career have a true servant's heart – they just want to do the right thing. They may stumble, but it's not that they stumbled out of malice or out of bias, it's simply out of ignorance and not understanding some of these unique dynamics. We're very fortunate here in Austin in that, to my knowledge, we're one of the few academies in the state of Texas that teaches specifically about intimate partner and sexual violence within the queer community to each of our incoming cadets.
What have been some of your toughest cases?
There's one particular case that really stands out to me and actually motivated me to do more training and consulting in this area. The victim identified as lesbian, and she was a person of color. She was dealing with the intersectionality between race, sexual orientation, homelessness, and some drug addiction issues. Her family had kicked her out of the house, she was basically living on the street, couch surfing from friend to friend because her family had disowned her because of her sexual orientation.
She began working for a registered sex offender, and he became her boss. He had groomed her over a period of time through their working relationship and had even put her up in an extended stay hotel for a while because she was experiencing homelessness. And he started to introduce alcohol into the relationship while they worked. On one particular night when she became very intoxicated, he took her back to the hotel room and he raped her. And it was a delay in reporting of about over a month, which is not unusual with victims of both intimate partner violence and sexual violence, of blaming themselves for what happened. She became pregnant because of the rape. She worked up the courage to finally reach out and report.
It was a challenging case in many different ways.: She was a substance abuser. There was a delay in reporting, and with little, if any physical evidence other than the pregnancy, she didn't know whether or not she was going to keep the child, and There was not a lot of corroborative evidence.
But we did a thorough investigation. When we finally got enough evidence to charge him, he fled to Minnesota. We had to do a nationwide search with the U.S. Marshals. We found him, successfully put him back into custody, and moved the case forward.
She ended up keeping the child. and I needed her to come in with the child to provide a DNA sample. And so, as we're sitting there, she says, "I just want to tell you, thank you." And I'm like, "Thank you? What do you mean?" She said, "Every single time I ever dealt with the cops, I was getting arrested, I was getting harassed. I did not want to come in here and talk to you. And I thought you would never believe me. But you did believe me, and you did a good investigation, and now the person that did this to me is going to be held accountable and thank you." And that was a huge defining moment for me because everybody comes with preconceived ideas of people, and it really taught me to leave all of those aside and just do my job without bias, without prejudice.
Subsequently, the suspect in that case is a guy by the name of Clifford Dunbar. You can research him. Clifford is going to spend the rest of his life in prison, and he'll never hurt anybody else again, not because of me, not because of the job I did, because of the courage of this survivor.
The victim and I stay in contact with each other. She's an amazing human being. She has raised a gorgeous daughter out of all of this, and this was a defining moment in her life for a variety of reasons. She told me, "Even though my choice to be a mother was not mine, the way I was treated and the things that you did made me think differently about society, differently about who law enforcement and the criminal justice system was."
Can you talk about how you incorporate VINE into your work with LGBTQ+ victims?
VINE is amazing because in intimate partner violence and sexual violence cases, a victim gets an opportunity to know what is going to happen and that somebody may be released or is going to be released before that person shows up at their front doorstep. It gives them an opportunity to get a warning and to know about that.
They just want to know, “What’s the process, how are things going to move forward, and what can I expect?” And VINE is so great in allowing us to have that conversation with the victim and reassure that victim that, "I'm not just here for the couple of minutes it takes me to take this report, but there's a tie to us trying to keep you safe, even past this moment. I'm keeping you safe by taking whoever the suspect is because there's evidence to do so and taking them away and securing them from you. But I'm not just doing that without also prepping you and giving you the opportunity to know when they're going to be released." And so, oftentimes it's that connection back to the victim, because sometimes victims feel abandoned, "I called the police, they came, they did, I never heard anything else," right? And it makes them feel like they're on an island by themselves.
And the great thing about VINE, it's another tool that lets them know, "You're not alone. This isn't just a one-time deal, and we forget. We have a system that helps you stay safe, even after today," and that's one of the beauties of the system and one of the reasons I love using VINE!
These are the personal opinions and observations of Sgt. Michael Crumrine, not the Austin Police Department.