Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Morena Lopez, a transgender woman, told a gathering of 25 people Monday that she was recently harassed by Santa Ana police officers as she walked down the street with a friend. The officers humiliated her, she said, and accused her of being a prostitute.
Lopez was one of several transgender women who spoke of such encounters with police during the meeting organized by The Center Orange County, a community services organization for the gay and transgender communities.
“I shouldn’t feel guilty for wearing a dress out in the streets,” Lopez told the crowd.
The meeting also included representatives of the Santa Ana Police Department, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Orange County Equality Coalition and the Public Law Center. Transgender women have been complaining for at least two years of harassment by Santa Ana police officers, according to Ginger Hahn, executive director of The Center Orange County.
The meeting was held in a conference room at the building housing The Center Orange County in Santa Ana.
Its main purpose was to start a dialogue between the city’s transgender community and the police department. As police Sgt. Enrique Esparza and Deputy Police Chief Carlos Rojas listened attentively, several transgender women told stories of harassment at the hands of police officers.
Most of the women complained that they had been harassed on a street they called “La Quatro,” the common Spanish reference for the heavily Latino Fourth Street. And the testimonies carried a common theme: Police officers were assuming that the transgender women are prostitutes.
“People think that because we’re dressed up in women’s clothing, we’re looking to offer a good time. We’re not,” said James Guzman, known in his community as “Jimmy Bling Bling.”
Guzman said he was born with a hormonal imbalance that stopped his voice from developing a masculine tone. He has been a transgender woman for 30 years, he said, but recently decided to dress as a man.
Guzman went to police officers after being robbed. Instead of receiving help, Guzman said, he was arrested for prostitution.
Rojas said the perception among transgender women that they are being unfairly targeted is not the reality.
“Most [prostitution] arrests are not folks that are transgender,” Rojas said.
The city has historically had prostitution problems on Harbor Boulevard, mostly with non-transgender women, Rojas said. He added that there have been complaints of prostitution on Fourth Street, though they’ve been waning recently.
Most of the prostitution enforcement on Fourth Street stems from community complaints, and Rojas said officers are not targeting transgender women when they respond to calls. “It’s not a philosophy or a mindset that, hey, when we get a call about prostitution on Fourth Street it’s transgender,” Rojas said.
Rojas neither affirmed nor denied the specific allegations leveled by Lopez and others. Instead, he said that police officers were human beings.
“The officers are hired from the human race. Not all officers are perfect. Some may be prejudiced,” Rojas said. “I make no excuses for any officers that were rude or hurt you in any way.”
Rojas told the crowd that communication with the police department was key to resolving issues between the police department and the transgender community. He encouraged transgenders to fill out and submit complaint forms so proper inquires into the alleged misconduct can be made.
“If you feel that you’ve been wronged by a police officer, tell us about it,” Rojas said.
But there was clearly an air of fear in the room. A previous meeting had attracted twice as many transgender women, mainly because there weren’t police officers present, according to several of the meeting attendees.
Efforts are being made, however, to have police complaint forms available at the center so transgender women don’t have to walk into a police station to lodge an official complaint.
Other ideas akso were discussed, including reviving of a disbanded human relations task force and having a transgender community liaison work with the police department.
“Communication is number one,” Rojas said. “At the end of the day, we’re one community.”