Sheriff Hickman Offers Vague Plans to Expand LGBT Policy

Sheriff Ron Hickman.
Sheriff Ron Hickman.
Harris County Sheriff's Office

Lou Weaver grew up respecting the badge. His father was a cop. His father's friends were cops. And so Weaver never feared the police.

That changed when Weaver, who is transgender, was pulled over several years ago on a traffic stop. The officer's reaction to Weaver explaining that he was a transgender man, not a lesbian woman, was so brash that Weaver thought he might end up in cuffs. Then he wondered what would happen if he was ever booked: Would they house him with women because he didn't have a penis? Would they house him with men because he had a beard and a man's voice? But what if he was raped the second he stepped into the shower?

Weaver, a local activist and LGBT consultant, is certain that these are the thoughts of every transgender person who faces police in any situation. It's why he was thrilled in 2013 when then-Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia wrote up an LGBTI policy to protect against discrimination, aid jailers in appropriately housing and classifying inmates by gender, and keep LGBTI inmates safe. It was heralded by many as the best LGBTI jail policy in the country, Weaver remembered. And Weaver was hired to train those jailers on how to best implement it, how to handle the intricacies that come with transgender issues.

He lost that job not long after Sheriff Ron Hickman was appointed to replace Garcia, who stepped down to run for Houston mayor in May.

Hickman didn't cut the policy—just some of it. He cut the jailer training, and also the LGBTI liaison program that designated point people for LGBT issues in the jail who could also answer complaints and requests from the community. There used to be a little rainbow flag next to that email address, listed on the Harris County Sheriff's Office website. When Hickman learned about that little flag in a June public meeting, he said, “You mean we have a rainbow flag on the website?” and reportedly shook his head. That flag—along with the email address— is no longer there. And, to say the least, his comments and actions thereafter did not sit well with the LGBTI community.

Sally Huffer, community projects specialist at the Montrose Center, an LGBT organization, said that even something as little as that online flag was a significant, positive step forward in the LGBT community. “Once you take the gay flag off, you go back to being invisible,” Huffer said. “And that's the part especially for the LGBT community versus other minorities, is that our minority status is hidden. [The flag] was a signal to someone that this is a safe place.”

At a meeting on Wednesday night with a group of local Log Cabin Republicans, Hickman said he didn't understand why he got so much flak for those decisions. And he also said that, actually, he plans to expand Garcia's LGBTI policy. Still, he offered little detail except to say he wants to focus on three areas: inmate classification (already a main focus of Garcia's policy), how to address LGBTI people during traffic stops, and how to deal with LGBTI crime victims. “In my 40-plus years,” he said after mentioning these points, “there have been a myriad of circumstances where every person in front of me needed very special, very unique type of treatment, and that's the way we'll approach it.”

Yet later on, when Hickman explained why he decided to cut the LGBTI liaison program, special treatment was certainly not something he supported. Hickman said he cut the program because it was rarely ever used—and because no other minority groups had a program like that, so why this one? One woman at the meeting objected, saying she had many LGBT friends who would find it important that certain officers be identified as LGBT-friendly. The idea appeared to almost offend Hickman, who shot back that the badge itself should be enough to indicate that an officer is safe to talk to. In an interview afterward, he elaborated, saying, “How many generations have we been telling kids, 'this is the person you can talk to'? So now, having a unique, special label seems contradictory.”

Then he added: “It was just stuff they just never did. They put this policy in place but nobody ever followed it.”

Hickman isn't exactly wrong about that. Garcia may have set the table for a big change, but by the time he left his post, his policies had yet to be completely rolled out. Which is not to say there wasn't progress. Weaver says that earlier this year, HSCO finally settled on computer software to help aid in that inmate gender classification process. Weaver was teaching himself how to use the software so he could eventually teach the jailers at the time that Garcia announced his run for mayor—which was when progress slowed. The next step, Weaver said, would have been changing housing in the jail in order to provide an actual safe space for vulnerable LGBTI individuals—mostly transgender people who faced the kind of questions Weaver once asked himself. It was something they never got to.

And still haven't. If a transgender person were to go to jail today, there are very limited housing options that would keep them safe from abuse. Segregation or isolation is one option, but not necessarily a fair one. Weaver felt like they were just on the brink of solving this when Garcia left, but said he is hopeful that Hickman, if he does in fact want to expand the policy, will make this a priority—and put required training back into the policy.

Hickman said that LGBTI training is still available online and is optional for his deputies. He also noted that all of the deputies and jailers still have to take the federally required Prison Rape Elimination Act training, which covers how more vulnerable populations may be more susceptible to abuse.

But Weaver said none of it is enough. “You cannot learn about transgender people by reading something on the Internet,” he said. And so even if Hickman expands the policy, Weaver noted that, "Without proper training, no, nothing will be able to be implemented.”

Hickman assured everyone at the meeting that he intended nothing mean-spirited when he let Weaver and the training go. “We're doing our own academy now,” he said, “so we'll be teaching ourselves.”

Regarding his apparent plans to change Garcia's policy, Hickman said it wasn't a priority—perhaps not even this year.


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