New York Agency Declines to Help Trans Woman Allegedly Harassed by Law Enforcement
She is suing the Division of Human Rights for saying it’s not authorized to investigate her complaint.
DeAnna LeTray, 52, a transgender woman from Watertown, New York, describes the overnight hours of Sept. 28, 2017, as “the worst night of my life, probably.”
LeTray was arrested shortly after 1 a.m., when officers from the Watertown Police Department responded to a 911 call from her daughter. According to the police, the daughter’s boyfriend approached LeTray with an unloaded shotgun after she attempted to enter his home and broke a window. LeTray says law enforcement disregarded her version of events, and proceeded to misgender and harass her, and eventually assaulted her in custody.
“While arresting me, the police said things like … ‘How long have you dressed like that?’” LeTray alleged in a September 2018 complaint to the New York State Division of Human Rights. During booking, police “forced me to remove my hair, which I consider to be a part of myself.” She also alleges that officers at Jefferson County Correctional Facility forced her to strip naked, probed her anus, and fondled her genitals.
An attorney for the sheriff’s department later stated in court papers that LeTray was subject to a “visual strip search.” Through the attorney, the department denied the assault and denied knowledge of what occurred during LeTray’s arrest or booking. A lawyer for the city of Watertown, on behalf of the police, confirmed in court papers that officers removed her wig, but denied allegations of verbal harassment and denied “knowledge and information sufficient to form a belief” on the strip search allegations. Neither party responded to a request for additional comment.
I was harassed and abused … because I was a transgender woman.DeAnna LeTray, plaintiff
LeTray ultimately pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, harassment, and trespass, all violations. But her mistreatment haunted her, she said, prompting LeTray to file the 2018 complaint. “I was harassed and abused … because I was a transgender woman,” she wrote.
One week later, she got a rejection letter from the Division of Human Rights. The agency didn’t address her allegations but stated simply that its jurisdiction—which includes schools, hospitals, stores and workplaces—excludes law enforcement.
Police departments, state prisons, and county jails “are not public accommodations under the New York State Human Rights Law,” Division of Human Rights regional director Julia Day wrote in an Oct. 5 denial.
This made no sense to LeTray, who says she had done extensive online research on places to turn before approaching the Division of Human Rights. “Where else would I go?” she said. “They need to handle this. Why would they not?”
Erin Beth Harrist, a senior attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a petition on LeTray’s behalf in December in Jefferson County Supreme Court, arguing that the Division of Human Rights’ mandate does, in fact, cover cases like LeTray’s. The agency’s strict interpretation of the law bars vulnerable New Yorkers from a simple, no-cost avenue to defend their rights and seek damages and procedural reform, she said.
I find it disappointing that the state is so eager to use these technicalities to try not to take these cases.Erin Beth Harrist, New York Civil Liberties Union
The Division of Human Rights can order a range of remedies if a complaint is founded: from back pay and reinstatement of a job, to emotional damages and new statewide regulations. For example, as of 2018, state hospitals are required to inform transgender patients of their rights.
“I think there are a lot of people who have valid claims of discrimination in the jails and prison who have no real choice of going to court because it’s so time intensive and expensive,” Harrist told The Appeal. “I find it disappointing that the state is so eager to use these technicalities to try not to take these cases.”
Transgender New Yorkers are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 58 percent of trans respondents who had interacted with police within the last year said they experienced verbal or physical mistreatment.
For those who choose to report their experiences, there are fewer than a dozen independent police oversight entities scattered throughout New York State, according to the National Association of Civilian Oversight for Law Enforcement. And most of these—including the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, the Citizen Review Board in Syracuse, and the Citizens’ Police Review Board in Albany—can only recommend disciplinary action.
The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act outlines protections for transgender and gender nonconforming people against unwanted searches and inaccurate gender classification, but advocates in New York say compliance is difficult to track.
LeTray is not the first to turn to the Division of Human Rights for recourse against law enforcement. In 2015, a transgender woman in Clinton County jail reported that staff denied her access to a unit for transgender prisoners. The division’s position, that the jail was not under its purview, was upheld in court.
But Harrist says this interpretation of New York’s Human Rights Law—which states that identity-based discrimination is prohibited in “any place of public accommodation, resort or amusement,” as well as all “housing accommodations”—is too narrow.
Police departments are “public accommodations,” Harrist argues in LeTray’s petition, because they “provide myriad services to the public at large,” including criminal investigations, traffic mitigation, and crowd control. Corrections departments, the petition states, provide housing to incarcerated people, and therefore fit under the “housing accommodations” umbrella.
A spokesperson for the Division of Human Rights declined to comment on an open case. But in court papers, the agency argues that jails and prisons are not public accommodations because they are “not open to the general public.” The agency also argues that state legislative efforts to amend the Human Rights Law to cover “services” such as policing, have so far failed.
New York’s Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which passed last week after years of Republican opposition, is also subject to the Division of Human Rights’s interpretation. “I’ll be closely watching the pending NYCLU case,” Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, the sponsor of the bill, told The Appeal.
The state is at odds with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which does consider law enforcement a public accommodation. Harrist also cites a New Jersey Appellate Division decision in favor of a Black couple who alleged that police beat them and used racial slurs after responding to a domestic dispute call at their home. “As a public entity, by its very nature a police force is a place of public accommodation,” the 2004 ruling states.
I'm not a fighter. I'm a passive person, but if I'm going to fight, this is the one.DeAnna LeTray, plaintiff
Justice James McClusky of Jefferson County Supreme Court announced Jan. 10 that he will issue a ruling on LeTray’s case within the month. LeTray, meanwhile, seldom leaves her home. “I feel unsafe,” she said.
This case, she added, has given her a renewed sense of purpose. “I’m not a fighter. I’m a passive person, but if I’m going to fight, this is the one,” she explained. “This isn’t about me. This is about getting the law changed so that if this ever happens to anyone else, they have some result.”