Representatives from local and federal law enforcement agencies came together to participate in a hate crimes panel presented by the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Last week’s panel, hosted by Pride Center at Equality Park, featured uniformed police officers from the cities of Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors; agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Miami field office and a assistant United States attorney.
“Hate crimes are hard to prosecute and difficult to investigate,” said Gera Peoples, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney Southern District of Florida.
Peoples, a practicing attorney for 17 years, said he decided to become a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s civil rights division after the deaths of two close friends.
“I realized what’s my purpose?” Peoples said. “Two very very close people to me in my life were murdered just because they were gay.”
According to the Matthew Shepard Foundation there have been 35 successful prosecutions of hate crimes since 2009 when then U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law is named for Shepard, a young gay man tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming and Byrd, an African American man tied to a truck and dragged to his death by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.
Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, participated in last week’s panel. He said whenever he speaks to law enforcement he is sure to get their attention.
“One of the first things I tell them is my son died because of you,” Shepard said.
Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998 and as Dennis notes, “in those days if somebody from the LGBT community was robbed, vandalized beaten or murdered (cops) would just say, ‘oh well, another fag and didn’t really do much about it….so it encouraged others to do what they wanted.’”
Capt. Michael Dodson, a district commander with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, said the relationship between police and gays and lesbians has greatly improved.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with you,” Dodson said.
Following the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Dodson said he marched in a Pride parade to show support.
“We have come so far from when law enforcement and the gay community were adversarial,” Dodson said. “The days of Stonewall have given way to panels like this.”
Gary Blocker, assistant chief of the Wilton Manors Police Department, said all hires must be culturally competent to work in a city with one of the highest populations of LGBT people in the nation. Blocker said WMPD is a leader in serving and protecting LGBT people.
“You don’t start a relationship when a crisis hits,” Blocker said.
Dr. Morgan Mayfaire, founder of TransSocial.org and a clinical psychologist said he often gets phone calls from LGBT people who are “frightened to reach out to law enforcement.”
“The police are not the enemy,” Mayfaire said.
Before the panel discussion, Michael Nordman, community affairs manager for MillerCoors, spoke to the group. MillerCoors, Nordman said, scored a 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality index for the fifth year in a row. The alcohol and beverage company was one of the first companies to provide spousal benefits for same-sex couples, Nordham said. Thursday’s event at Pride Center was part of MillerCoors’ Stay Loud, Be Proud hate crimes training.