You can forgive Katie Miller for not quite knowing what to expect from her new role as the Minneapolis Police Department’s LGBTQ liaison.
Since taking the job after nearly two decades in the nonprofit world, most of which was spent working with homeless youth, she has been setting up meetings with members of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual) community, while getting a crash course in police procedures and lingo.
But six months on, she’s still figuring out where she wants to take the job.
“This is a new unit — I myself am new to the department,” she said in a recent interview at police headquarters.
Hers is one of six civilian community navigator positions at the department, part of its efforts to build closer relations with historically marginalized groups including the Latinx, East African, African-American, and American Indian communities and domestic violence survivors.
All of the navigators are civilians and, like Miller, have a background in social services. She spent the past 19 years working for YouthLink, the Hope Street Shelter and the Link, a nonprofit aimed at helping children beat the poverty, crime and homelessness found in some neighborhoods.
The fledgling unit was founded on the premise that not every 911 call needs a police response. Instead, navigators make follow-up visits at homes where officers make a report on something that isn’t criminal in nature, but requires some sort of intervention. Sometimes the job can be connecting people with available services; other times, it’s just lending a sympathetic ear.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Miller said her priorities are to improve relationships with the LGBTQ community, where memories of past law enforcement excesses — such as the 1969 police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — remain strong.
That this year marks the 50th anniversary of the raid, considered a seminal moment in the modern gay rights movement, is lost on few.
Protesters have said they plan to interrupt Sunday’s annual Pride parade, as they did in 2017 and 2018, to call attention to police killings of civilians and what they consider continued harassment of LGBTQ members.
However, for the second year in a row, city police officers will not be marching in uniform at the parade, said department spokeswoman Sgt. Darcy Horn.
Officers will still be allowed to participate, wearing rainbow shirts that read “MPD” on the front, and the department will also run a booth at the two-day festival, which typically draws tens of thousands of people downtown.
This comes two years after a public standoff with some Pride organizers who did not want law enforcement officers at the parade after the acquittal of former St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was charged in the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop. Organizers eventually backed down after then-Police Chief Janeé Harteau, the first openly gay person in the top cop role, called the decision “divisive” and took to social media to defend her officers’ participation.
Before last year’s parade, Chief Medaria Arradondo advised officers not to appear in uniform, after meeting with organizers.
The navigators’ role
Department officials hope the navigator unit can build rapport with groups that have historically been ignored by police, much like its existing community engagement team, which also has a LGBTQ liaison.
In 2016, Minneapolis announced a new policy for how officers should handle interactions with transgender people, including a requirement to address people with their preferred names and pronouns, joining cities like Seattle and New York that have adopted such a change. The department also began tracking data such as race and gender on drivers and pedestrians who are stopped to determine whether officers are engaging in profiling.
Betsy Hodges, who was mayor at the time, said the new rules were building on the legacy of Minneapolis, which in 1975 adopted the first statute in the country prohibiting discrimination against transgender people.
Arradondo lobbied hard for eight navigators, but the council only approved enough funding to hire four. Another two were added later, thanks to a federal grant, officials said.
This comes amid a recent spate of violence and hate crimes against LGBTQ people across the country.
On Thursday, police in Dallas arrested a 22-year-old man in connection with the death of a transgender woman whose body was found in a lake.
Many gay people don’t report crimes right away, or at all, out of fear or mistrust of the criminal justice system — a trend that is particularly pronounced in the bisexual community because of stigma, according to Leah Yoemans.
“I would still say it’s still a very fragile relationship,” said Yoemans, who chairs the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Bisexual Organizing Project. “I hear a lot of people in the community who don’t feel comfortable around police, and then there are some who do.”
An ambassador’s approach
As Miller sees it, her role is that of an ambassador, recognizing that she can move through spaces normally off-limits to some of her colleagues.
She said she will work to improve communication between the department and the LGBTQ community, and in the process to correct misconceptions on both sides.
“I believe that systems are made up of individuals, and I still believe in the power of influencing individuals and just the ripple effects that that can create,” she said. “It’s listening, it’s understanding, it’s being appropriately challenged on perspectives and then how can you find a common place?”