Jacksonville Homicide Investigation Raises Questions, Concerns In LGBT Community

Feb 23, 2018

updated at 2/26 at 11:30 a.m. 

LGBT advocates are upset with the way the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is identifying a deceased shooting victim who they say was a transgender woman. Police haven’t announced any arrests in the murder.

On a Sunday afternoon in Riverside’s Memorial Park, Maria Garcia was standing in front of a crowd reading a poem she found online at a vigil for Celine Walker.

As Garcia read the final line it was met with applause: “Today I mourn and I remember all of my siblings killed because they were transgender.”

Garcia is an organizer with the local Coalition for Consent. Her group and others organized this vigil as not only a period of mourning, but a call for action after Walker was shot dead in a hotel room near the St. Johns Town Center early this month. Police had publicly called for leads in the case, and they identified the victim as Cedric Walker, a man.

But everyone at Sunday’s vigil said Walker was a transgender woman who went by Celine, not the name on her license. And a viral Facebook post by someone saying she was a friend posted pictures of Walker, writing she was a trans woman who went by Celine. The Human Rights Campaign said Walker is the fourth transgender homicide victim reported this year.

A Call For Action

Elias Joseph was at the vigil calling on the Sheriff’s Office to change its practices.

“JSO is being super disrespectful, misgendering her, calling her by her dead name, when they really have no reason or cause to do so even though they claim that they do,” Joseph said.

In an email to WJCT News, the Sheriff’s Office said investigators go by whatever gender ID the medical examiner makes.

“According to official legal records, which is what we are required to go by, the victim Cedric Walker was the legal name, and he was a male,” JSO spokeswoman Officer Melissa Bujeda wrote in an email.

JSO declined an interview.

“You know we’re not asking them to talk about her genitalia or anything like that, which is all the medical examiners really look at, we’re just asking them to call her by her right name and use the right pronouns, which is really not hard,” Joseph said.

Bujeda said transgender people have legal avenues for changing their name on official documents, and giving police information that doesn’t match is a crime.  

“You do not get to choose your name, race or sex when you are arrested or written a traffic citation,” she said. “It is a crime, and you can be arrested if you give information that is false or misleading during a lawful arrest or detention which includes giving a false name.”

Legal Changes

That ID-changing process is something local transgender attorney Rusty Mead knows a lot about.

“The process can be quite lengthy and it can be expensive if you’re doing it on your own, and even if you’re not doing it on your own if you need the assistance of an attorney,” Mead said. “What happens with a lot of transgender folks in particular, you live in a status that makes it hard to survive with getting your basic needs met.”

That struggle, he said, comes from the discrimination many face.

“So it can be difficult as you can imagine to come up with the $400 for a filing fee at the courthouse,” he said.

He said that fee can be waived if the person can’t pay it, but many don’t know that avenue is an option.

Mead said with trans people sometimes unable to keep steady work, they may not be in dependable housing. He said he’s seen people miss their court hearing dates for a name change because they didn’t get the information in the mail due to moving around so frequently.

“If you don’t know about it, don’t show up, they dismiss case, and you have to start all over,” he said.

To change gender on an ID, the person has to get a letter from their physician stating they're undergoing clinical treatment to transition. The document can be taken to the Department of Motor Vehicles for the gender marker change.

And while official documents are one thing, Mead said that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation between police and the public. He said JSO’s response makes him feel like he wouldn’t be treated fairly by police.

“Why not just talk about? Why not implement a policy? Why not have a discussion with the community, especially the community that is the target of this discussion,” he said.

LGBT Liaison

Dan Merkan, chair of the LGBT advocacy group Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, said a couple years ago JSO designated a department LGBT liaison as a point of contact for LGBT advocacy groups, but Merkan said it's an unofficial title and not publicly advertised. 

Merkan said the faceless nature of the arrangement  largely defeats the purpose.

“The position of Coalition is the point of having an LGBT liaison is so that there is a face who communicates with our community, and anything short of that is not really ideal,” Merkan said.

He said conversations with the person have centered around the need for community outreach and officer training.

JSO did not respond to the question of whether a LGBT liaison role exists. 

What Other Police Departments Are Doing

In 2014, the Seattle Police Department hired full-time LGBT liaison Officer Jim Ritter.

“Having a liaison helps bridge that gap to a community which has not always trusted the police,” he said.

Ritter started by meeting with transgender people of all ages and demographics. He heard what they wanted from police and then they helped him make an 18-minute training video.

“It basically lets our officers know about what it’s like, as much as they can, to be transgender and to be empathetic and compassionate when dealing with the transgender community,” Ritter said.

In addition, the department created a transgender policy. It requires officers to call people by their preferred pronouns and names, even if they haven’t legally been changed — that’s in both in person and on official documents. And when they book trans people in jail, officers list both their legal and adopted names. Seattle also works with 130 other police departments to help them implement similar policies.

He said he couldn’t speak to how exactly the homicide unit would handle a case like Walker’s.

“How it’s reported, we would encourage our officers, if that’s information that they’re aware of, that this person may in fact be transgender, that needs to be documented thoroughly,” Ritter said.

Ritter said Seattle’s policy in combination with a program called Safe Place, which encourages LGBT victims to report hate crimes and threats, means reporting has more than tripled over three years.

Ritter said Seattle’s transgender policy in combination with a program called Safe Place, which encourages LGBT victims to report hate crimes and threats, means reporting hate crimes and threats has more than tripled over three years.
Credit Seattle Police Department

Prior to 2014 “there was a huge lack of reporting of hate crimes in the City of Seattle,” Ritter said.

Violence Against Them

That’s as violence against transgender people has been on the rise nationwide, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most victims last year were people of color, like Walker, who was African American.

Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Equality Gina Duncan said Walker’s case reminds her of a situation in Tampa in 2015.

“You might remember India Clarke was murdered in Tampa and she was misgendered,” Duncan  said.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Hillsborough Police referred to her as a man, and the media reported it that way. The same thing happened in Walker’s case.

“It serves as a negative ripple effect with print and visual media in the fact that we saw local TV stations picking up on what police were putting out to them,” Duncan said.

Hillsborough Police didn’t respond to interview requests, but spokesman Larry McKinnon was quoted in the Times article saying their department also went by the medical examiner’s report.

“At an investigative stage, labeling somebody one thing or another is not correct," McKinnon said in the article. He added that detectives did not immediately know if India Clarke identified as female or cross-dressed.

He also said that doesn’t change their determination to solve the murder. An arrest was made in Clarke’s case after about a week.

Duncan said she worries JSO’s identifying Walker as a man will hinder the investigation.

“People in the community know her as a woman,” Duncan said. “Her gender identity is being dismissed. she’s being disrespected after death, which is horrific. And again it’s impeding the ability to investigate a transgender woman being murdered in Jacksonville.”

When asked about this, Bujeda said the investigation is active and ongoing.

“As with any case, if homicide detectives feel the release of certain information would help the efforts in their investigation, a news release would be sent to everyone,” she said.

WJCT News attempted to contact the woman who posted the viral Facebook post about Walker but did not hear back.

Story has been updated with information from the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality. 

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.