Friday, November 12, 2021

JSO's LGBTQ+ liaison receives mixed reviews from community since its formation in 2018 (Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville FL)

Our northern neighbor, Duval County, and its Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, appear to have grown on LGBTQIA+ sensitivity issues, including murders of Black transgender people. 

Thanks to Jacksonville advocates for making "good trouble," with some improvements.

Now: Will GANNETT's St. Augustine Record cover LGBTQIA+ issues, too?

From GANNETT's Florida Times-Union: 

JSO's LGBTQ+ liaison receives mixed reviews from community since its formation in 2018

By Katherine Lewin

Florida Times-Union

October 21, 2021

In 2018, three Black trans women killed in Jacksonville made national news after they were killed in the first six months of that year. 

The killings, including a fourth non-fatal shooting of another Black trans woman, garnered no immediate arrests and caused fear in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Women were terrified to be out alone. And LGBTQ+ people did not feel seen or respected by law enforcement as they watched the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office refer to the trans women as men in police reports and even news releases detailing their deaths. 

In August 2018 during a community meeting, Sheriff Mike Williams announced the creation of a liaison team to work specifically with the LGBTQ+ community, acknowledged his agency could have done better in some areas and announced changes that would be made. 

"If we had the liaison team six months ago, we may not be here,” Williams said at the time, referencing the people killed.

Since that day, some things have changed: 

Arrests were made in one of those killings. But there have been more assaults on the LGBTQ+ community in the area since then, including  a man beating and dragging someone behind a minivan and the canceling of the University of North Florida's Pride event this year after threats were made on social media.

Sheriff's officers have attended rallies and other events since then. But the listening session in August 2018 was the only one of its kind with the LGBTQ+ community more broadly. 

Police officers now use the name that appears on a trans person's birth certificate once in reports before using the person's chosen name and pronouns.

The Sheriff's Office has an email address for people who want to report a crime or reach out to investigators. But community members say that email address isn't widely advertised heavily so it's become little-used. 

While changes inside the Sheriff's Office have been made, members of the LGBTQ+ community still feel targeted. 

Paige Mahogany Parks, the founder of the Jacksonville nonprofit Transgender Awareness Project, says she has emailed and left voicemails for the liaison team and never gotten a response back. 

"We feel...that there's a target on our backs, especially the Black and brown trans community," Parks said. "I would like to see the liaison team reach out to the transgender community...and become an ally. Treat us like you treat the rest of the community." 

The Sheriff's Office wouldn't respond to questions for this story.

Internal changes, training for JSO 

Celine Walker, 36, the first of three transgender homicide victims in 2018, was shot multiple times on Feb. 4, 2018, in a room at the Extended Stay America motel on Skinner Lake Drive. Sean Bernard Phoenix pleaded guilty to Walker's murder in October 2020 and received a 35-year prison sentence. 

Antash’a English, a 38-year-old local performer, was shot between two abandoned homes in the 1500 block of Ella Street on June 1, 2018. Her case has no reported arrests. 

Cathalina James, 24, was killed June 24 outside the Quality Inn and Suites on Dix Ellis Trail. No one has been reported arrested for her killing. 

More:Pride Month controversy: Why FDOT ordered lights changed on Acosta Bridge, then reversed itself

More:'Tell your story': Transgender youth activist urges advocacy for JASMYN, LGBTQ community

The Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies received nationwide backlash for refusing to call transgender people by the pronouns and genders they identified with in daily life in news releases and police reports. 

After Walker’s death, the sheriff’s office called her by her legal name in reports and news releases and released a male name to the media. Friends and family members called the agency's  refusal to call Walker by her name  disrespectful, especially after multiple people called the sheriff's office to let them know of the mistake. 

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office set up a town meeting about a month after the third killing and announced the creation of the liaison team. The meeting and the push for the team came from a coalition of local organizations, including JASMYN, who set up a committee specifically to improve the communication between the LGBTQ+ community and the Sheriff's Office. 

Dan Merkan, director of policy at JASMYN, says the committee met over a period of weeks to set up the town meeting and get Sheriff Williams to attend. That first meeting generated mixed feelings, with some people walking out because they felt like it was nothing but a media opportunity for Williams. 

Merkan said that while the Sheriff's Office hasn’t had another meeting with the community specifically to discuss LGBTQ+ concerns, the liaison group has participated in Pride events and made important changes internally.

 The internal changes include referencing a transgender person’s legal name, or dead name, only the first time in a report, and then using the person's preferred name in subsequent references, Merkan said. Officers are also directed to ask a person’s pronouns, if it’s safe to do so, and use those pronouns in the reports, regardless of what's on the person's driver’s license. 

Training on the changes with “top brass” was facilitated by both the ACLU and Equality Florida, according to Merkan.

“Then they worked their way down and they did a training with lieutenants and then with sergeants and then they created an online module for everybody else to take with a specific focus on issues and how to treat transgender people with dignity,” Merkan said. 

Members of the liaison group were also present at a rally downtown this past summer and another in the fall after the Acosta Bridge’s Pride lights were unceremoniously shut off

'The energy behind the team has changed'

But Merkan also admits that the liaison team is not well-advertised and that people may have forgotten it exists. 

“They have done what they said they would do. But my concern is that there needs to be more visibility and sustainability because it is an all-volunteer LGBT liaison team and unfortunately, as people have retired or moved on, the energy behind the team has changed,” Merkan said.

The lack of city-wide promotion has limited the interactions between the Sheriff's Office and the LGBTQ+ community to organized groups like Equality Florida and JASMYN, says Jimmy Midyette, the North Florida development officer for Equality Florida. 

“When we've had hate crime type things or sadly murders or whatever, we've been able to access that team to say, 'Hey, is there anything we need to know?'” Midyette said of the team. “In a way, it's a partnership between the Sheriff's Office and the organized community. The problem with that becomes if you're not part of the more ‘organized community’ you might miss a message or forget that the resource is out there.”

More:'We're losing our lives': activists gathered for Black Trans Lives Matter Inclusivity Rally

Midyette thinks the Sheriff's Office should consider designating a specific staff member or a rotating group of officers to the liaison instead of having it purely volunteer-based. He also thinks members should consider spending more time out in the community increasing visibility and holding regular town hall formats like the first meeting back in 2018. 

“The potential has not been realized at this point,” Merkan told the Times-Union. "In my opinion, only because there hasn't been the visibility in the community, the proactive setting of an additional listening session or town hall.” 

The liaison team can be reached at 

Katherine Lewin is the enterprise reporter at the Times-Union covering criminal and social justice issues in Northeast Florida.  Email her at or follow on Twitter @KatherineMLewin. Contact her to share news tips and documents. Support local journalism.

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