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Riverhead police complete LGBTQ sensitivity training

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Patrol officers in the Riverhead Police Department recently completed training to help them interact more effectively with members of the LGBTQ community. 

The 90-minute workshops combined “LGBT 101” training given by the LGBT Network of Long Island and also addressed gender identity and expression, issues that impact the transgender community.

According to Police Chief David Hegermiller, approximately 50 officers completed the training course during evenings in May.

“It’s a good awareness to have,” he said in an interview last Wednesday. “To different situations you might be presented with.”

In an interview Tuesday, LGBT Network executive director and chief operating officer Robert Vitelli said the workshops blend professional training with fun. “We infuse a lot of humor into our work because it helps people be more comfortable,” he said. “We’re not here to scold, reprimand or judge anyone.”

He said the training for law enforcement specifically addresses how to interact with transgender individuals or respond to domestic incidents that involve two people of the same sex.

“There’s still a lot of fear that LGBT people are living with,” Mr. Vitelli said.

Riverhead police Sgt. Dino Isgrow said Monday evening that the training gave him a lot of insight into the experience of a transgender person.

“As society progresses and changes, staying current on new procedures is a good thing,” he said. “Whether it’s a call for service or unfortunately making an arrest, we need to be as respectful as possible.”

The most important aspect of the session, Mr. Vitelli explained, was ensuring that the police officers felt comfortable asking questions. “A lot of people have questions but don’t have a place to get those answers,” he said.

Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force member Andrea Hyndman praised the police department for its efforts and said the training is a partial response to safety fears expressed by members of the local LGBT community.

“So many people are afraid of the police,” Ms. Hyndman said in an interview last week. “They’re trying to change that image and be more sensitive to people in the community.”

LGBT youth are especially vulnerable to bullying at school.

Findings from the 2017 National School Climate Study conducted by GLSEN, a gay rights advocacy group, found that seven in 10 LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment at school based on sexual orientation.

Advocates say that hostile school climates can negatively impact mental health and educational outcomes.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that regardless of age, members of the LGBT community are more than twice as likely as their peers to attempt suicide.

Gay-Straight Alliance clubs were launched in 2014 at both Riverhead Middle School and Riverhead High School after generating enough student interest.

Riverhead’s GSA clubs reflect a national trend that has gained traction in schools across the country to support LGBT youth. The club’s primary focus is to ensure all students are comfortable being themselves among their peers.

Despite heightened awareness and acceptance, including the establishment of GSA clubs and achieving marriage equality, Ms. Hyndman said members of the LGBT community can still feel marginalized. “It’s not easy being gay, so having the support and back up [of the police department] and people willing to listen is a helpful, positive thing,” she said.

Chief Hegermiller said that in recent years, anti-bias training at the police academy has begun covering more contemporary issues. “It’s something newer to the academy, so we wanted to make sure all the officers had it,” he said.

“When you’ve been an officer for a while, you may not have necessarily come up against different people — different cultures, lifestyles. There is a sensitivity that needs to accompany that,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said Monday. “What makes community policing so important is to be able to have that trust with all members of our community.”

Officials hope the training can lead to greater acceptance and trust among community members. “We’re not that large of a community, so we need to be able to have that dialogue,” the supervisor said.

While the recent training workshops were the first to directly address the LGBT community, Chief Hegermiller said his officers routinely participate in similar trainings on other issues.

Last year, he said, members of Organización Latino-Americana East End partnered with the police department for a training specific to the Hispanic community.

As a department, he said, it’s their duty to ensure that all members of the community feels safe.

“I want to make sure we’re sensitive to all segments of our community,” the chief said.

In addition to better preparing police officers, Ms. Jens-Smith said she hopes members of marginalized groups can feel more at ease when interacting with law enforcement.

“If someone is being harassed or bullied, you want them to feel comfortable coming to the police and not staying silent,” she said.

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