Kiesha Jenkins murder ‘not a hate crime,’ yet transgender women are targets

     Image of Kiesha Jenkins taken from a campaign raising money for her funeral expenses.

    Image of Kiesha Jenkins taken from a campaign raising money for her funeral expenses.

    The Philadelphia Police Department announced that the murder of Kiesha Jenkins is being investigated as a robbery and not a hate crime. But a person can be victim of a robbery and a hate crime at the same time. One does not preclude the other.

    Kiesha Jenkins, a pretty, talented, 22-year-old African-American transgender woman was brutally beaten by a group of men before being shot to death on Oct. 6 at 2:30 a.m. She may be the 21st transgender woman murdered this year that we know of. Most or all of them were women of color.

    Some transgender activists are saying this is an epidemic. I am not certain there is an increase in the murders rather than in the rate of reporting, since coverage of violence against transgender women has been sporadic at best. Historically police investigation of crimes against transgender women has been rare. On several occasions the police have refused to investigate crimes committed against me. One police officer even harassed me for hours at a station house instead of looking for the gunman who robbed me.

    News reports about the murder show an attempt to be respectful. Both the news media and the police department refer to Ms. Jenkins by her chosen name and preferred pronouns. Previously when reporting the murders of transgender women, the police and the press have used birth names and masculine pronouns. Reports used to concentrate on the luridness of the women’s lives rather than the fact that they had been murdered. Thirty years ago, when Tanya Moore and Tina Rodriguez were murdered and their bodies brutally cut up and set afire, the media focused months of attention on their sordid lives as prostitutes. A Philadelphia Magazine article all but said they deserved to die. Nobody was concerned about the fact that there was an obvious psychopath(s) sharpening his skills.

    ‘Not a hate crime’?

    On Monday, the Philadelphia Police Department announced that the murder is being investigated as a robbery and not a hate crime. Pedro Redding, arrested early Sunday morning, has been cooperating with police in identifying the three men who assaulted Jenkins with him. He said they were trying to get her money, and when she fought back, one of the men shot her. It has been reported that Redding had been arrested previously for robbing and assaulting another transgender woman. The charges were dropped when she did not appear for court.

    A person can be victim of a robbery and a hate crime at the same time. One does not preclude the other.

    Blacks were robbed of their lives and freedom during the period of American slavery. Many blacks were robbed, lynched and their entire towns burnt down during Jim Crow. Millions of Jews were robbed of their possessions before being sent to concentration camps. A hate crime has the additional factor of putting fear in all members of a group by example.

    A group of men beating and shooting a defenseless transgender woman is an example of overkill, which is frequently seen in hate crimes.

    While news reporting and police investigations may be improving, prevailing attitudes are still brutal. A brief glance at the comments sections on news articles online reveals vile opinions that Jenkins wouldn’t be dead if she wasn’t wearing women’s clothes and wasn’t a prostitute.

    So she was wearing women’s clothes. Even if she was a prostitute, even if she was in a park at night, is that a reason for four men to beat and shoot her to death? Do people even listen to what they are saying and justifying? Or does it matter, if you hate a group of people?

    If a man is found dead, nobody asks what he was doing in a park at night. Men are free to walk anywhere at any time of the day or night. If a woman is out at night, she is prey. Even if you are not sympathetic to Jenkins, do you want to live somewhere where a group of men can beat and shoot someone?

    Is anyone paying attention?

    I have escaped being murdered about 13 times. I am talking about walking down the street minding my own business and some man, or group of men, starts chasing me. A friend and I once counted about 13 transgender women who we knew who had been murdered — and that was 25 years ago. Most people don’t go through this. Transgender women, especially minority transgender women, have a very specific, very dangerous problem that has been ignored.

    For a 1991 article I wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune, after the murder of transgender woman Anna Francisco, Detective Edward Tenuto of the police public affairs office told me, “Deceased was a male dressed in female clothing. That’s how we describe them. We do not say that a person was a transvestite or a cross dresser. We just describe what we see, and that is the body of a male dressed in what appears to be female clothing.”

    No figures were available then for the number of transgender people assaulted or murdered each year in Philadelphia. Tenuto said they were able to compile statistics “for deployment reasons, for tactical reasons, but not for the sake of answering a question for the news media. No, obviously we can’t do that. It’s too costly.” Lt. Thomas Quinn of homicide said at the time that murders were categorized according to how the murder was committed, not the social status of the victim.

    In 1998 I interviewed Police Commissioner John Timoney for the Inquirer. He said he was doing a complete analysis of 1,000 homicides. “If there was a trend of transsexuals being murdered, I would want to know about it,” he said.

    However, he said he saw no trends related to sexual minorities.

    Improved police procedures, yet we are no safer

    Since December 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department has had Directive 152, which explains how the police should interact with transgender people. The directive tells officers to use the name and gender pronouns that a transgender person prefers and gives rules for treatment of transgender people who are taken into custody and who are crime victims.

    “The Philadelphia Police Department takes every homicide incident very seriously, and our investigators are dedicated to solving those incidents regardless of the race, gender, or sexual orientation of the decedent/victim in those incidents,” said Lt. John Stanford, with the department’s public affairs division. “Our officers are directed to treat all people with the courtesy and dignity that they deserve as a human being…”

    “We have worked closely with the LGBTQ community through the department’s liaison, Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, as well as the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs in addressing the concerns of the community as well as creating a policy that addresses those concerns and the interaction with the transgender community.”

    I asked if the department keeps track of transgender murders, and Stanford said that they do make notations on the decedent’s file as well as in the homicide tracking database.

    As for other crimes, such as robbery, assault and rape, whether the victim was transgender is not tracked. “Data is recorded in a number of categories based on the federal and state standards and guidelines,” said Stanford. “There aren’t specific categories recorded for religion, transgender, or sexual preference.”

    He said, however, that if a crime is committed against a protected class under federal guidelines — i.e., a hate crime — then it is reported as such in the investigative files.  

    Gender identity has been included in federal hate crimes legislation since 2009.

    A job for the next mayor

    Jim Kenney is the presumptive next mayor, so I asked him how the transgender community would have access to his office if he is elected. “Direct with me,” he said. “I have been accessible, and we going to place more emphasis on these types of crimes, both murders and assaults.”

    Does Kenney think Kiesha Jenkins’ murder could be both a robbery and a hate crime? “I think it can be both, but we probably will not know until the investigation is completed. I think it can be both a hate crime and a robbery.”

    I asked Kenney: What can be done to make schools safe so that transgender kids aren’t bullied out of school? He said, “I think we need to interface with schools, labor unions and SRC so that students can find solace both in the building and outside.” We discussed having escorts through neighborhoods for students who feel endangered.

    Would the Kenney administration address the issues of transgender youth in foster care, group homes and incarceration? He thinks that DHS, corrections and mental health “all need to be integrated

    together to develop a policy that is appropriate and fair to transgender youth and adults.”

    Transgender people face rampant job discrimination and unemployment, even when a transgender person has skills. I asked what could be done to improve employment so many transgender people do not have to resort to the sex industry? Kenney responded that Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations needs to be bolstered to investigate complaints about unfair hiring. He said that (Mayor’s LGBTQ Liaison) Nellie Fitzpatrick is studying a non-profit Los Angeles model for transgender recruitment and hiring practices.

    It is incongruous to say that this is a wonderful era of awareness and equality when transgender women are constantly being assaulted and murdered.

    The $20,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the murderers is probably helping the the investigation more than sympathy for Kiesha Jenkins.

    Cei Bell is a Philadelphia-area writer and has been published in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Gay News, the Philadelphia Tribune, City Paper and other papers and magazines. She has written about minority transgender issues since long before it was fashionable. She co-founded one of the first transgender feminist groups, Radical Queens, which she wrote about in the anthology “Smash the Church, Smash the State.”

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