Countdown to Tolerance

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Thu May 30, 2013

Police Attend LGBT Human Rights Training Sessions in the Caribbean

“You have changed my life more than you will ever know…”

This statement surely came as a surprise even for a couple of seasoned teachers. It was made by a participant during a feedback session in the most recent of a series of LGBT human rights sensitization sessions for police in Suriname.

On behalf of AIDS-Free World, the married couple of Maurice Tomlinson, Legal Advisor Marginalized Groups for AIDS-Free World, and the Reverend Tom Decker of Metropolitan Community Churches have been carrying out these training sessions in the Caribbean for nearly two years.  Similar trainings have happened in St. Lucia and Barbados.  All these sessions are held at the invitation and with the cooperation of local LGBT groups and police services. 

Members of the Caribbean LGBT community frequently report that officers are generally unsympathetic to gay victims, and police agencies are slow to respond to crimes motivated by hate.  It is also reported that some officers even participate in these homophobic attacks.  LGBT individuals are therefore reluctant to report their victimization. Their experiences with the police are typically negative, and there is a perception that police are unaware of the issues facing LGBT communities; or worse, consider them unapprehended criminals.  Such a toxic mix of factors results in an exclusion from justice by Caribbean homosexuals and men who have sex with men (MSM).  This drives the vulnerable community underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions.   It is critical to grasp that the Caribbean has the second highest HIV burden after sub-Saharan Africa, with the MSM community being disproportionately impacted.

Tom is a retired LGBT liaison officer for the Toronto Police Service (TPS).  While at the TPS he led the design of the award-winning RHVP Program (Report Homophobic Violence, Period), which in 2010 was recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police as among the top ten Community Policing programs globally. This program has been adopted widely in Canada and internationally to provide LGBT sensitivity training for police officers.   It also addresses the chronic issues of LGBT teen suicide and domestic violence.

The programme has been extensively revised to account for Caribbean realities. 

The training provided in the Caribbean is therefore unique in as much as it combines Maurice’s extensive knowledge of local Caribbean culture and International Human Rights Law and Tom’s experience as a police officer and program designer.

The couple’s joint delivery of the sessions allow participants in the Caribbean to experience first-hand a married same-sex couple who also happen to be accomplished professionals. This experience helps deconstruct some of the deep-seated stereotypes prevailing in the Caribbean about LGBT individuals.

The modules of the training are designed to specifically address the above-mentioned challenges. An introductory LGBT-101 module is intended to deconstruct some of the myths and stereotypes officers may have of members of the LGBT community. In a safe space, participants are invited to ask questions they would normally not feel comfortable asking. It is important that this module is facilitated by a functioning, loving same-sex couple. This normalizes same-sex relationships and allows participants to understand that the lives and aspirations of LGBT persons are not as different from their own.

Subsequent modules focus on hate-motivated victimization, their impact on victim communities and investigative best practices. Special emphasis is placed on the plight of LGBT youth and suicide prevention. Same-sex domestic violence investigation is another major component of training session. It allows participants again to recognize and understand their biases and prejudices and how they can compromise an investigation. An extensive question-and-answer period completes the training.

Whilst Maurice and Tom always prepare themselves for some strong homophobic push-back and verbal attacks, their experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Participants appreciate the facilitators’ openness to answer personal questions, have been respectful, and have demonstrated an eagerness to learn. These training sessions have been very influential and many officers have described them as thoroughly transforming.  At least one police service is now considering implementing the programme as a course at their police-training academy; this would be a first across the region.  Importantly, the sessions have enabled local LGBT communities to form closer working relations with the police, resulting in improvements in their interactions as well as an increased responsiveness of officers to reports of homophobic violence.