The resignation of a former member of the Philadelphia Police Department LGBTQ Liaison Committee raises questions about the group’s role and ability to fulfill its perceived purpose.
No one seems to agree on exactly when the committee was created, but it has been around since the late 1990s and generally enjoys the trust of the local LGBTQ community. Many first interact with the all-volunteer committee—made up of local LGBTQ members—when they complain about officer bias or criminality. It is intended as a place to request redress and reform.
The committee’s goal is “to build bridges between the LGBTQ community and the Philadelphia Police Department,” according to its Facebook page.
However, the nearly 30-year-old group has no authority and serves solely at the commissioner’s pleasure.
South Philly resident Rizzo Erno believes its less-than-ambitious mandate is holding the city back from progressing on LGBTQ issues in policing. And that’s one of several reasons he resigned his committee seat earlier this year.
“When you can’t go any further, you have to step away,” Erno wrote in a February 7 Facebook post announcing his resignation, “The committee needs to be abolished and redone the right way, with greater community representation . This city needs to do better.”
One of the ways it could be done better, Erno told Billy Penn, is by defining consistent leadership. Since January 2020, four separate police chiefs have advised or worked closely with the group.
It was initially led by former PPD Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan, who was known for his ability to relate to the community and deftly navigate issues such as LGBTQ outreach and the city’s response to the opioid crisis. After he retired in 2020, he was followed in relatively quick succession by Inspector Altovise Love-Craighead and Sgt. Nicholas Tees. In the summer of 2022, Inspector Jarreau Thomas took over as department liaison and now works with Tees, according to PPD’s website.
“Making this initiative better is impossible if we’re constantly rotating officers,” Erno said, pointing to the fact that police leaders need time to develop deeper cultural competence and personal expertise to be effective.
In an email to Billy Penn, the Philadelphia Police Department agreed that they need to do better.
PPD “recently underwent a restructuring of operations that will improve how our Community Relations Bureau provides services,” said spokesman Sgt. Erik Gripp.
Current members of the committee feel that PPD’s leadership changes halted progress, but are hopeful for the future.
Current co-chairs Marirose Roach and Tami Sortman developed a strategic plan in early 2022 to build on past progress and “take the committee to the next level,” the group said in a statement, but “momentum was short-lived due to command changes in the entire police department.”
Innovative, in the 1990s
By today’s standards, the group is arguably toothless, but the LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee’s formation nearly three decades ago under PPD Commissioner John Timoney and Mayor Ed Rendell was a hard-fought victory for community advocates.
Before it was formed, there was little official contact between the local LGBTQ community and the police – at least in a positive way.
Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo’s stamp on the local LGBTQ community included aggressive assaults on so-called “cruising” around Rittenhouse Square and violent raids on established safe spaces like gay bars “that led to many being verbally and physically abused by officers ,” explained Mónica Marie Zorrilla in her look at local LGBTQ history for Billy Penn. That history exists today, both in historical texts and in oral history passed down between generations.
Today, the liaison committee exists mostly as a way for police to hear community concerns, to provide individualized services to LGBTQ Philadelphians regarding crime or policing, and to ensure that PPD officers receive diversity and sensitivity training.
The group lauds innovations like Directive 152, which outlines how police officers should respectfully interact with LGBTQ community members during all types of stops. It has also helped with victim support and assistance, as well as diversity training, both for new cadets and veteran officers. While good in theory, “diversity training as currently practiced is unlikely to change police behavior,” according to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Effective or not, that diversity training is one of the few areas in which the committee is allowed to operate, according to limits set by the police.
Under its current structure, the group cannot discipline officers. It cannot investigate crimes. Members serve at the pleasure of the Commissioner. All this makes it very difficult to hold the department accountable.
In 2015, The Philadelphia Citizen called on municipal leaders to adopt a more aggressive model, proposing a dedicated PPD unit that would investigate LGBTQ-related crimes, including same-sex domestic violence cases, and implement anti-LGBTQ tracking bias complaints filed against officers.
How to solve membership recruitment
Another struggle the group faces is recruitment. The all-volunteer committee struggles with community participation, said Sgt. Gripp, PPD spokesman.
That’s a function of the structure of the committee, argued Erno, the former member who resigned, saying he believes the members are dedicated to their cause. With the PPD’s controlling committee agendas and membership — it has veto power over anyone who applies — the group’s existence “is going to seem like a PR stunt,” he said. “It has no sense of legitimacy.”
According to Erno, this is the core problem. “If they want to do things right, they should start from a community-based point of view, not a department-based point of view,” he said.
His hope is that the LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee works with community groups, the department, the District Attorney’s Office and local jails to collaboratively develop things like criminal justice system engagement service cards or trauma-informed processes tailored to specific constituencies.
The department is open to change, Gripp told Billy Penn, saying PPD is exploring a restructuring that could prevent such high turnover and figuring out how “committee members can take a more active role in community outreach and training, internal officers diversity and sensitivity training and of course continuing to help us promote positive police/LGBTQ+ community relations.”
Just as Erno is quick to praise the current committee members, the group is equally happy with his 15-month volunteer efforts.
“We are so grateful to the past committee chairs and members who have led the way and built bridges between PPD and the LGBTQ+ community,” the group told Billy Penn. They encouraged anyone interested in joining their efforts or with questions to email Inspector Jarreau Thomas or Sergeant Eugene Crozier.
Still, given the relative lack of political influence and its turnover problem, Erno believes the group is not serving its intended purpose.
“We’ve had situations where members of the community say they’ve been assaulted or had very unpleasant interactions with an officer. We’d have a committee meeting, we’d bring it up to the police, and nothing would come of it. We’ve had a few members leave because of it,” Erno said. “It’s ineffective.”