Metro Weekly

ProPublica: Misgendering transgender crime victims can impede investigations and delay justice

Investigation finds that many police departments identify victims based either on their ID or their sex assigned at birth

Crime scene tape – Photo: Fer Gregory

A recent investigation by ProPublica found that a majority of law enforcement agencies that have investigated murders of transgender people have misgendered or “deadnamed” victims due to rigid rules about identifying victims or outdated understandings of gender and gender identity.

ProPublica’s investigation found that 65 different law enforcement agencies in the United State have investigated 85 murders involving transgender victims since Jan. 1, 2015. In 74 of those 85 cases, victims were either initially or continually identified by names or genders they no longer used in their daily lives.

While some might dismiss concerns about “deadnaming” transgender victims as political correctness, LGBTQ advocates note that using a transgender person’s incorrect name or gender can actually hamper investigations during the first few critical hours and prevent them from being solved — thereby deferring justice for a victim’s friends and family.

LGBTQ advocates also note that the practice of “deadnaming” and misgendering victims also foments distrust and hostility towards police, damaging relationships that police need to foster with community members in order to perform their jobs.

“[Deadnaming or misgendering a victim] might lose the cooperation of the friends and family — the people we need to solve the case,” Detective Orlando Martinez of the Los Angeles Police Department told ProPublica. 

ProPublica specifically looks at several cases in Jacksonville, Fla., Baton Rouge, La., and Tyler, Texas, to highlight examples of why so many law enforcement agencies continue to engage in this problematic behavior.

For instance, in Jacksonville, where a rash of transgender attacks and murders have occurred in recent months, the sheriff’s office says it is adhering to its policy of identifying people based on a medical examiner’s report and whatever name or sex are listed on their official state identification. In fact, the policy appears to be enforced so rigidly that ProPublica reports that a department spokeswoman attempted to correct its reporters when they referred to one of the victims as female, saying: “The victim is listed as a male.” 

ProPublica also noted that the department sometimes provides a victim’s chosen name and gender identity, but only as “additional details” in the case, and not as a primary form of identification. 

In Baton Rouge, where transgender woman Amia Tyrae was shot to death this year, the local police department doesn’t have a formal policy on how to identify transgender victims of crimes, and often resorts to identifying people based on their assigned sex at birth. In Tyler, Texas, following the death of transgender woman Ty Underwood, police relied on her physical appearance, noting that she did not have female breasts and referring to her as a “male dressed as a woman” or a “transvestite” throughout its investigation.

Because many police departments rely on the name and gender listed on a person’s driver’s license or other identification, ProPublica’s investigation raises another problem for transgender individuals: that of navigating a complex government bureaucracy just to be recognized for who they are.

In many states, transgender people can only access an ID correctly reflecting their name and gender identity if they obtain a court order (which can be cost-prohibitive given the legal fees they’d have to pay), provide evidence that they have undergone gender confirmation surgery (which is expensive, often not covered by insurance, and sometimes unnecessary for people diagnosed with gender dysphoria), or both. If a transgender person is unwilling or unable to bear the costs or undergo surgery, they will go without an up-to-date ID. 

ProPublica found through its investigation that arrests have been made in 55% of the killings of transgender people over the last three-and-a-half years. This is below the overall clearance rate of 59% for murders in the United States, regardless of the victim’s status.

That said, there are some police departments that do take into account a victim’s gender identity and identify them by their proper name. ProPublica highlights the Dallas Police Department as one of those examples.

When Carla Flores-Pavon was found strangled to death in her apartment in May, Dallas Police Department Deputy Chief Thomas Castro notes that officers made an effort to refer to the victim as “she” and “Carla” during their investigation. 

“When we go out to the community and talk about somebody, we have to identify them by the way they identified,” Castro told ProPublica. He added that it wouldn’t be helpful to the department to seek out witnesses or others with knowledge of the victim by referring to her by a name that nobody knew her by.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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