Serving LGBTQ+ crime victims: An interview with a law enforcement expert

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 study by the Human Rights Campaign found that LGBTQ+ people are nearly four times as likely to be victims of violent crime than those outside such communities. Researchers found that such a population is much more likely to be victimized by someone they know well than a person who is a non-sexual and gender minority.  

Carl Hershman-1This is familiar territory for Detective Carlton Hershman, who spent 32 years in the San Diego Police Department before retiring in 2017. He has trained thousands of law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, military personnel, sexual assault nurse examiners, and advocates on sex crimes investigations, false reporting, victimology, among other topics.

Hershman worked under Joanne Archambault, the founder of the End Violence Against Women International in the San Diego Police Department. Hershman says it was Archambault who sparked his passion for working with special victims and encouraged him to become a trainer and educator. In 2007, Hershman implemented the San Diego Police Department’s sex crimes cold case unit, where he investigated more than 1,300 sexual assault cases. Many of the victims he served were members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Hershman spoke to us about his work seeking justice for LGBTQ+ victims.


What barriers are faced by LGBTQ+ victims that are unique to their community?

The number one barrier is just convincing victims to come forward. If you're involved in a domestic violence relationship or you were sexually assaulted, it's tough to come forward, even if you're not part of the LGBTQ+ community. With that said, I think a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community feel that they're not supported by law enforcement or if they come forward that they would be judged or treated differently or wouldn’t be accepted. And like other marginalized communities, there’s a reluctance to come forward because they don’t want their own people to be further stigmatized.

In your professional experience, have you seen LGBTQ+ persons more likely to become victims of a crime, or more likely to become victims of certain types of crime?

Yes, but it’s difficult to quantify and the reason is because they frequently don't report. There's often a person in a same-sex intimate partner violence relationship who has the power over the victim.

Another reason is the perception that they’re going to be treated differently by the system. Therefore, they don't report, and they just get re-victimized. Sometimes a friend or a family member will report the abuse. In those situations, it's tough because the victim will recant or they will outright lie and say, "No, this isn't happening." And the person who is abusing them knows that. And they may use their sexual orientation as a weapon. They may threaten to out the person, so they won't come forward.


What about hate crimes, such as the murder of Matthew Shepard. Is it harder to get a case categorized as a hate crime?

I think hate crimes are a little bit different because they’re easier to identify in the LGBTQ+ community, A person might think, "Well, I'm a real victim.” We want them to understand that they’re a real victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, especially if it's repeatedly done and they're re-victimized. There’s an assumption that for a hate crime they’ll get more support for that. So, they're more likely to report that than a more typical crime.

I was an investigator on a case involving a 17-year-old gay man who was beaten and sodomized on a camping trip with other teens. It was a pure hate crime. But the DA's office would only prosecute the sexual assault portion of it, not the hate crime. I tried to explain that the hate crime was what motivated the sexual assault. I had a few other cases like that as well. It was incredibly frustrating when I couldn’t convince the prosecutors to pursue a hate crime conviction.


Are LGBTQ+ victims more likely to come forward now than in the past?

I joined the Sex Crimes Unit in 1999. The number of LGBTQ+ community members who would come forward at that time was extremely low, especially males. Over the next decade, it really jumped. And I think that had to do with law enforcement going out and making connections in the community, building trust.

But there’s still a tendency among LGBTQ+ victims to think, “I’m not going to report it because I'm not going to be believed, or they're not going to understand, or they don't care."

We try to help victims understand that they do have power. The California crime victims’ rights legislation promises no intimidation, no harassment throughout the criminal justice process. And every police officer from the front line up to the chief has to follow that. We tell a victim, "If you're getting push back or being judged within the system, stand up to that and there's plenty of support. We have advocates to support you." They're the unsung heroes in this process.


From a legislative perspective and a law enforcement perspective, what's missing from our laws for LGBTQ+ victims?

We need statutes similar to rape shield laws, (which limit the ability of the defendant’s counsel to introduce the accuser’s sexual history as evidence during a rape trial and therefore can prevent the accuser from being discredited by information that is not relevant to the defendant’s guilt or innocence).

And we shouldn’t be dropping certain charges. If the investigator presents a set of charges and the motivation for a horrific crime was a hate crime, don’t drop that charge because it’s difficult to prosecute. And the system also relies too heavily on plea bargains because we just don’t have enough prosecutors and judges.


Among the law enforcement, legal, and victim service provider professions, even with the best intentions, what can they do better to meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community?

First of all, it's training — understanding different communities, who your victims are and where they come from. Police departments just don’t have money for training on cultural sensitivity. It's an issue all across the nation.

The other thing I think that could be done is better outreach to the LGBTQ+ community and let them know that they are welcome. Law enforcement is there to serve everyone. And I don't mean just having officers who are part of the LBGTQ+ community to do that, but it’s also important for the whole population of law enforcement officers and detectives to do that.

And you have to build trust. In law enforcement, we tend to think that victims will always cooperate, always take our calls. That’s just not the case.  Your victim may not trust you because they perceive that you don't believe them or you will turn them away because they're going to be difficult. I mean, they were sexually assaulted. What victim isn't going to be difficult after that experience? And they often have other things going on in their lives. They may be homeless, they may be mentally ill, or they may have parents or family members who don't know they're gay and they don’t want to be outed. There all these barriers to overcome. We have to be sensitive to that and just do everything we can to protect them while we also seek justice for them.


Karen Adams


Karen Adams

Karen Adams serves as Training Manager with Appriss Insights, where she educates crime victims, service providers, advocates, law enforcement, and criminal justice professionals about technology solutions including VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) and other issues related to victim safety. In addition to a combined 30 years of experience as an administrator, trainer, facilitator, and mediator, Adams is certified as an ATD Master Trainer and holds a master’s in Management and Leadership from Webster University School of Business and Technology, and undergraduate degrees in Management and Applied Science from the University of Louisville School of Business. As a proud Louisvillian, Karen resides in Kentucky, the Bluegrass state, and has a heartfelt connection to family and friends.

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