Representation on police force builds trust with LGBTQ people
Sept. 21, 2022
Greg Miraglia couldn’t tell anyone he was gay when he started work as a police cadet in Walnut Creek, California. He knew he’d be fired.
Now, as founder of Out to Protect, the 35-year veteran of law enforcement works to repair the still fraught relationship between LGBTQ people and police departments. His California nonprofit, launched in 2016, supports LGBTQ officers and trains departments on better ways to treat people who are LGBTQ.
“My thinking at the time was that the best way that we’re going to change hearts and minds in the profession is to have more ‘out’ people,” Miraglia said.
Out to Protect provides scholarships and grants to law enforcement agencies that train officers how to build trust with people who identify as LGBTQ and want to create community liaison positions in departments. Such officers, Miraglia said, might check in or attend an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce or other business meeting, stop in at an inclusive church or go to a Genders & Sexualities Alliances meeting at a high school.
Miraglia said Out to Protect has worked with 86 police departments in the U.S. and now is working with the FBI and Department of Justice.
Such work is necessary, he said. Without it, Miraglia would still have to hide who he really is – a burden he took on for many years of his career. To stay in his profession, he had to hide his personal life.
At his second police job, in Fairfield, California, Miraglia was questioned by his boss.
Seated across the police chief, he was told he was going to be investigated because a co-worker was concerned about “all the male roommates” Miraglia had.
“I was scared to death,” Miraglia recalled. “I didn’t want to lose my career.”
But the investigation never happened, and Miraglia stayed in Fairfield until 1998.
A 2021 nationwide report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law says lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer adults are less likely than people in the general population to report that police “behaved properly” or that they would contact the police in the future.
The work of Out to Protect is building awareness of shared humanity, hiring police officers as liaisons to the community, Miraglia said, and leveraging culture and language are key. As an example, some people conflate sexual orientation (who you’re attracted to) and gender identity (who you are), but officers trained to know the distinction are less likely to take the missteps that lead to misunderstanding and distrust.
Miraglia recently spoke more about his work.
What policing practices help build trust between LGBTQ people and the police?
The most effective practices are not necessarily unique to LGBTQ people. Communities that struggle with a relationship with law enforcement are looking for the human behind the uniform. So having a designated community liaison and points of contact mean a communication pathway for collaboration and unity. That person who is known by face and known by name in the community is very effective in building trust.
It all begins with training. And a big part of that training is officers use appropriate language to understand what sexual orientation and gender identity are and to understand how the nuances of how best to respond to things like hate crimes and domestic violence. I think that for officers who are not comfortable with sexual orientation and gender identity, training can help.
Training personally impacts these officers. After sessions, officers will often say or write to me about how this has really helped them understand their LGBTQ family and friends and has given them some language to better communicate.
There was one attendee at the FBI Academy who wrote a letter saying, “I went home and talked to my wife about the session. We have a cousin who’s struggling with gender, and we never really understand it. But now we do. Now we have some language skills.”
Stories like this have happened more often than I anticipated. And, of course, that impact is going to help the community.
How should an officer approach someone who identifies as LGBTQ?
One of the most important things is to understand terminology. Specifically, what the appropriate terminology is, how it’s evolved over time and what inappropriate words have been used in the past. And those questions are grounded in an understanding of what sexual orientation is and what gender identity is. There’s a lot of misunderstanding and stereotypes around just those two aspects of identity. The other part of it is understanding the history and why there is mistrust in law enforcement. It’s not about trying to blame current law enforcement officers for things that happened 50 years ago.
I heard a chief of police say recently, “It’s not about being responsible for history, but it is being responsible to history.”
What does representation mean to the LGBTQ community?
When you as a citizen can look at the rank and file of the people in uniform – who are policing you, who are wielding the authority to make arrests, who are using force and who are making enforcement decisions – and you can see people like you, it carries a huge amount of credibility and legitimacy.
I have marched in different Pride parades over the years, and people appreciate seeing the LGBTQ officers out in uniform and visible. The applause is definite. It’s so loud. So, I know that there is an appreciation when people see themselves represented in uniform.
What are your hopes for the future?
Number one, central to our goal with Out to Protect, is to reduce and, ideally, eliminate homophobia and transphobia in law enforcement. I would say that it is still a significant problem in many regions in this country.
We want to build a good, trustworthy relationship. That includes having a designated LGBTQ liaison officer and a rank and file that have cultural competence around LGBTQ issues. That includes having members who are out, just like we’re trying to encourage departments to hire more women, more people of color and people representing all of the races present in a community. We know that LGBTQ people exist in every town that is policed in America. They may not be visible, they may not be out, but they exist everywhere.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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