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“To Protect and to Serve?”: An Exploration of Police Conduct in Relation to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community


While there are studies that focus specifically on hate crimes, especially anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender motivated violence, little research has been done to examine the role that law enforcement officials play in responding to crimes related to the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) community. This study, therefore, attempts to do just that. Using traditional content-analysis techniques, we examine 1,896 incident reports that were collected by a GLBT advocacy group in Minnesota, between 1990 and 2000, to begin to understand the range of police responses in relation to the GLBT community. Results indicate that while police conduct improved, negative responses and behaviors on the part of law enforcement officials outnumbered positive responses. The most common complaint by Helpline callers was inadequate response by the police; there were also numerous callers indicating that they were further victimized at the hands of the law enforcement officials. The data suggest a continued need for the education of law enforcement officials regarding issues facing the GLBT community, advocacy for victims of crime who are many times reluctant to report an incident to the police and increased attention to issues of oversight and accountability for officers who are responding to calls for help from the GLBT community.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout the paper the following initials will be used to describe this community; “G” represents gay men, “L” is for lesbians, “B” is for bisexual, and “T” represents those in the transgender community. The combination of these letters may change, to recognize that there is no specific order to these initials. Additionally, this category includes people who are perceived to be GLBT but may not identify as such. Within the police-related cases we examined, 6% (22 people) identified themselves as being victimized based on perception of being GLBT. We wish to stress that while we do not continually use the phrase “or perceived to be GLBT” that people belonging in this category are included. We did not highlight them due to the limited number of cases and to ensure anonymity of the callers.

  2. 2.

    Due to underreporting and the actual amount of data that are available, it is difficult to determine the percentages of anti-GLBT related violence and property crime. Therefore, we have chosen the most common estimate available.

  3. 3.

    The terminology used to define each report is based on language adopted from the Anti-Violence Program and the FBI. There are distinctions between an offense, an incident and what is documented as ongoing event or serial incident. The definitions are as follows: An offense is a specific type of victimization such as harassment, vandalism, or assault with a weapon. An incident is made up of one or more offenses that occur as a single unit of experience. A single incident can involve more than one offense. Serial Incidents are those which involve the same victim and perpetrator, often involving on-going harassment and violence perpetrated by individuals living in the victim’s neighborhood. Even though these situations involve many separate incidents over a period of time, they are counted as only one incident to avoid skewing the data. This is another example of National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs efforts to be as conservative as possible in documenting incidents (The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 1996). All people reporting incidents are referred to as victims. The Anti-Violence Program as well as the U.S. Department of Justice also use this terminology. The AVP defines a victim as the person or institution that is the target of the attack (The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 1996). The Department of Justice defines a victim as, “a person whose rights have been reportedly violated is referred to as a victim and often is an important witness” (United States Department of Justice 2000: 1).

  4. 4.

    In the mid-1990s, these reports were computerized. The written reports contain the most information as they are the first report taken regarding any incident. Only the original, written reports were examined to maintain consistency and accuracy.

  5. 5.

    Both the former Coordinator of the AVP, and OFMs Development Director granted permission to access the reports. A confidentiality agreement was signed to assure anonymity of any specific personal information.

  6. 6.

    Only five reports were available for 1990 and 1991. The information regarding these incidents was sparse and therefore was not included in the final analysis.

  7. 7.

    The data for 1999 are incomplete as we had only partial access to cases from September through December.

  8. 8.

    This information as well as all data have been continually kept in a secured location. All identifying information will be destroyed once the final analysis is completed.

  9. 9.

    We would like to note here that our numbers vary from what is reported by OFM as well as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Part of the reason why there is such a difference is that our reports do not include domestic violence incidents or murders. There were also some reports that were unavailable to us due to when we gathered the data. A comparison between the number of incidents we examined and what is recognized by that National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs is at the end of this paper.

  10. 10.

    The remaining 3% of cases consisted of 14 organizations that contacted the police for assistance. Transgender people were also included, but because there were so few in number, they were integrated into the gender category that they chose to identify as. Additionally, race/ethnicity, nation status, class, age, ability and other “markers of difference” are not included in our analysis largely due to lack of information. Based on available data from AVP/OFM, informal conversations with people involved in these organizations, the basic demographics of the state as well as general reporting practices throughout the nation, most people contacting the Helpline are likely to identify as white, middle-class males.

  11. 11.

    Based on our data, 1999 actually was the lowest with zero cases. However, as noted throughout the paper, this information is limited as we did not have access to the entire year. Therefore for comparison purposes, we have included the data in the table but have not marked it as the lowest percent.

  12. 12.

    If examined according to all of the reports needing assistance, this percentage drops to 8% of all incidents requiring some sort of police assistance.

  13. 13.

    In 1988 the Minnesota legislature established a mandate that “a peace officer must report to the head of the officer’s department every violation of chapter 609 [crimes motivated by bias] or a local criminal ordinance if the officer has reason to believe, or if the victim [emphasis ours] alleges, that the offender was motivated to commit the act by the victim’s race, religion, national origin, sex, age, and disability, or characteristics identified as sexual orientation” (MN§ 626.5531). From the Minnesota Department of Public Safety 1998.


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Correspondence to Kristina B. Wolff.

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Wolff, K.B., Cokely, C.L. “To Protect and to Serve?”: An Exploration of Police Conduct in Relation to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. Sex Cult 11, 1–23 (2007).

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  • GLBT
  • Violence
  • Police conduct
  • Anti-Violence Programs