Police Beating of Transgender Woman Ignites Controversy

Edge Publication Story by Renee Baker, June 27, 2008.

Jamy Spradlin

It’s been over forty years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s embarked on his impassioned civil rights crusade, battled with police forces and ultimately was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The recent beating of an African American transgender woman, Duanna Johnson, suggests that discriminatory police brutality in Memphis has not ended. WMC-TV in Memphis recently obtained surveillance footage from the reception room of a local police station, where Johnson was beaten and maced by two police officers.

It’s “every trans-person’s nightmare come true,” says Donna Rose, transgender woman and a leader in several national GLBT organizations.

Johnson was booked on prostitution charges Feb. 12 at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis – charges that have now been dropped because the district attorney’s office found no probable cause for arrest. Video footage shows Johnson being brutally beaten by officer Bridges McRae, while probationary officer James Swain holds her down. Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund says the outburst was not only unconscionable, but extreme and disproportionate to the case. Silverman says they receive many complaints of mistreatment by police, but none on this scale of brutality.

Jennifer Donnals, communications director of the Shelby County district attorney’s office, says the case is now being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When the FBI concludes its findings, the Shelby DA’s office will evaluate them for possible state charges. The U.S. attorney’s office will further review the findings for possible federal charges.

The Memphis Police Department said in a statement that they are investigating the case. Officer Swain was immediately released from duty after the February beating incident. McRae was placed on non-enforcement status pending an administrative hearing until just yesterday, when he too was released from duty, according to WMC-TV.
Donnals says that an investigation into how the video was released to the media is being done by a separate agency, as “release of evidence to the public in this manner could jeopardize a case” against the officers if it comes to trial.

According to WMC-TV, the video was released to the media by Johnson’s attorney, Murray Wells, who felt it was an outrage that McRae was not immediately fired and no disciplinary actions were forthcoming. WMC-TV reports Memphis PD director Larry Godwin denies he was slow to hold a hearing until the tapes went public. McRae was fired just one week after the video footage was released to the media, and four months after the initial beating.

What exactly prompted the officers to beat Johnson is still unclear.

The consensus among witnesses at the event and LGBT organizations is that Johnson’s actions in no way justified the police officers’ violent actions. Johnson was said to have ignored prompts from the officer to stand up after he called her derogatory names such as “faggot” and “he-she.”

Patrick Callahan, public information officer of Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, an international organization of 800 transgender law enforcement officers and personnel, is very concerned about the video footage released. “The actual mistreatment or even the perceived mistreatment of a prisoner while in the custody of police officers sworn to uphold the law and to protect and serve is intolerable,” he says.

Callahan says that transgender police officers themselves have trouble transitioning in the workplace, and that many have to remain in stealth mode. “Police officers, just like the people they protect and serve, can often be very conservative people and may not easily accept change, particularly a change perceived to be as drastic as the transition from one gender to another.”

But Callahan thinks that the Memphis PD has more serious issues. “The severity of the attack on Ms. Duanna Johnson…suggests that there may be more severe issues that exist within the Memphis PD that place not only minority populations in danger, but the greater community as well.”

All those interviewed agreed education is needed. “The entire police department needs education,” Rose says. “We need to find ways of turning this inexcusable act of violence into something positive so others will not have to face the same thing.”

Silverman, who says though we will have to wait for the legal process to mature, believes that Johnson should most likely be [financially] compensated and the officers should be punished. According to WMC-TV, Johnson is making plans to sue the Memphis Police Department. Though Johnson was not available for immediate comment, Wells says he is proud of how she is handling the case.

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