Serpas tells gay community he supports them

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Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas told more than 100 members of Nashville ’s GLBT community that his department has not and would never target the gay community in its policing practices.

Serpas also said he supported including a clause in the Metro Police Department’s General Orders (a police department’s version of a policy manual) that would prohibit discrimination within his department based on sexual orientation and said he would look at appointing a gay officer to be a liaison to the GLBT community.

“If we don’t have it in there we’ll certainly consider it,” he said after questions from the audience about protections within his department for GLBT officers.

The department does have a policy which prohibits bias-based policing. That general order (policy) reads: “In the absence of a specific, credible report containing a physical description, a person’s race, ethnic origin, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or age, or any combination of these, shall not be a factor in determining probable cause for an arrest or reasonable suspicion for a stop.”

The policy went into effect in January 2002.

That same general order also requires annual training that will specifically address the prevention of biased-based police practices.

Serpas said he had a gay nephew whom he loved and was supportive of, and that he learned policing in the French Quarter in New Orleans , where he learned a great deal about diversity.

“I grew up in that environment,” he said when telling the crowd he supported and wanted a diverse police department. “I’m very comfortable.”

His remarks came during a first-ever community meeting at Play Dance Club which was called for by the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP). TEP arranged the community meeting after an article by Matt Pulle in The Nashville Scene told readers about the use of informants in gay chat rooms (on AOL and Gay.com) as part of the Hermitage Police Precinct’s drug enforcement efforts. The article focused on a gay man called "Steve,” who was arrested in the undercover operation. The suspect’s actual name, according to arrest reports with Metro Police, is Stanley Lewis Smith.

Serpas said those undercover efforts in the gay chat rooms lead to 16 arrests. Five of those arrested have pleaded guilty, and 11 of those arrested are pending trial. All of those arrested (except for Smith) were apparently willing to exchange drugs with the undercover officers in exchange for sex. Drugs found on the individuals arrested included Meth, Cocaine and Marijuana.

Smith was carrying what police said he told them was amyl nitrite (commonly referred to as “poppers” in the GLBT community). Smith’s attorney, John Herbison, who was present at the community meeting, said his client would plead not guilty in court and that he had filed a complaint with the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability over the arrest and use of “excessive force.”

The Nashville Scene article and the arrest report outline how Smith ran on foot from police when they told him he was under arrest. Police reports indicate a Taser wand was used to subdue him. He was shocked by the electric wand three times.

Rhonda White, a TEP board member, said she was pleased with the community response, and the chief’s answers.

“We had a very diverse group of about 100 people to meet with the chief,” she said. “It was very productive. People felt comfortable to ask any questions they wanted. We wanted to approach this issue in a responsible manner and find out as much information as possible. This meeting helped generate a much greater awareness.”

Several questions to the chief centered on the use of resources that resulted in the arrest of 16 gay individuals. Serpas said his department would go where crime took them, and said those same officers had arrested a total of 371 people as part of their undercover narcotic drug operations since September 2004.

“An informant came to the police department that criminal activity was occurring,” Serpas said. “We followed up on that like we would any report of criminal activity. The allocation of police department resources and the distribution of those resources is very complex.”

Other questions dealt with the hiring of GLBT officers, and the comfort level that GLBT officers had within the Metro Police Department.

“Is the police department a safe and comfortable place for them (gay and lesbians) to work in,” one person asked.

“I’m not aware of anyone who thinks it isn’t,” Serpas said. “I’m told the gay and lesbian officers don’t want to be treated any different. They just want to be police officers.”

Serpas said he strived to recruit and maintain a diverse workforce, and encouraged members of the audience to apply for jobs as police officers. He said an entry level officer with a college degree would start out at about $40,000.

Christopher Sanders, spokesperson for TEP, said the dialogue started between the community and the police department was a positive step, and that TEP would continue to provide a positive avenue for equality issues.

“This dialogue has already transformed the GLBT community’s relationship with the police department,” Sanders said. “We started with a question about drug enforcement, but the conversation has expanded into issues of employment nondiscrimination. TEP will continue to look for ways to build positive relationships with local officials while advocating for equality."