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Meet the transgender cop trying to make her department more LGBT-friendlyby Fernando Hurtado
The Big Story#LGBTQ

WATCH | This police department is working to be more LGBT-friendly.

Instead of homicides and robberies, five people at the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department are focused on something else entirely: building trust among the transgender community.

And Sgt. Jessica Hawkins, a transgender woman, is leading the charge. She was tapped two years ago to head the LGBT liaison unit.

But in 2000, when Hawkins first joined the force, she was Will, not Jessica.

Hawkins' story

"For me, I was expected to live as a cisgender male. I was a great actor," Hawkins told Circa. "I had the wife, I had the kid. And I lived that role well. I didn't really enjoy all of it. But I did it well."

Hawkins, 43, was born male and grew up with her mom in Miami, spending summers at Bible camp and after-school hours as a boy scout.

In February of 2014, 14 years after moving to Washington, D.C., she decided to come out as transgender.

February 2014 is a month Hawkins will never forget. It was the day she would become known as "Jessica" around the office. She's now one of two openly trans officers on the force.

"I was a great actor."

Sgt. Jessica Hawkins

Her transition

Before February 2014, she would only dress as a woman outside of work. In the office and on the streets, people knew her as Will or Billy, a man who loved fishing, hunting and his wife and two kids.

"Unfortunately, now I am divorced. I don't have a house anymore. I live in an apartment," said Hawkins.


Hawkins says her kids have been nothing but supportive. This picture was taken earlier this month while she was on vacation with her daughter.

How people reacted

Hawkins said she was surprised by how supportive everyone on the force was when she came out.

"I let my team know ahead of time that I would be coming in as a woman," said Hawkins. "But aside from that, I didn't tell anyone else."

While her ex-wife divorced her, Hawkins says her two kids have been very supportive.

"Other than losing my family and wife, it's the best decision I ever made."

Leading the unit

It was a few months after coming out as a transgender woman at work that Hawkins was tapped to lead the unit, which has been around since 2000 as the GLLU (Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit).

It renamed itself the "LGBT Liaison Unit" in 2016 to be more inclusive of transgender people.

"There's been a significant number of hate-biased crimes that have been going on for a few years," she said.


Transgender crime

Hawkins is right. From 2014 to 2015, hate homicides of LGBTQ people increased by 20 percent, according to the National Anti-violence Coalition Project.

And according to data from the FBI, LGBT people are more likely to be the targets of hate crimes than any other minority -- sometimes at the hands of police officers themselves.

D.C. also has the highest concentration of trans people in the nation. Nearly 3 percent of residents identify as trans, according to The Williams Institute.

Becoming more LGBT-friendly

How does one make a police department more LGBT-friendly?

"Training," says Hawkins. Last year, the entire department underwent LGBT sensitivity training. In it, they learned things like the correct pronouns to use when addressing transgender people.

"We also attend a lot of community events," she added. If there's an LGBT-oriented event going on D.C., she tries to go, or if she can't make it, she'll send someone.

Every year, the Metropolitan Police Department's officers undergo 40 hours of training. Last year, a section of that training was dedicated to LGBT issues.

Changing the mindset

Training is mandatory, so it's difficult to tell how the police officers have reacted to Hawkins' seminars.

"I think the reception has been great," she said.

Before the training, a lot of officers would use male pronouns when addressing transgender women without knowing any better, according to Hawkins.

"When that happens, the victim shuts down," she said. "It's either flee or fight."

A national model

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department isn't the only one with LGBT liaisons.

Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle have them, too. But few have entire units dedicated to doing community outreach with the LGBT community.

Hawkins used to be a police officer in southern Virginia, where coming out as trans was a "death wish."

Patrice O'Neill is the founder of Not In Our Town, a "movement to stop hatred in communities," and she's produced documentaries about law enforcement as it relates to the trans community.

She says more and more movements like Hawkins' are sprouting across the nation. She says the issue is that "transgender people are particularly vulnerable to underreporting [crimes]."

"Part of it is empathy building. The police are getting better at learning how to deal in a respectful way with the trans community."

Her advice for others

When asked what other departments should do to improve relations with the LGBTQ community, Hawkins has a simple answer: "Hire more transgender police officers."

She says there's a whole network of trans police officers online. Most of them are closeted, and she tries to convince closeted trans officers to move to a more progressive city like Washington, D.C., and make that leap.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has other liaison units besides the LGBT one, like the Asian Liaison unit and the Latino Liaison unit. All of them aim to better serve those communities.

Her message for other transgender cops

Coming out trans is difficult enough, but even harder in the cisgender male-dominated world of policing. She says it's a risk more cops need to take.

Her advice to other trans cops, closeted or out?

"Please come work here."