LGBTQ Advocate Calls On JSO To Appoint Formal Liaison Position

Mar 1, 2018

Some LGBTQ advocates are looking for a stronger relationship with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, after they said police misidentified a transgender shooting victim as a man in February.  

One advocate, Dan Merkan, said he’s been pushing for JSO to appoint a formal LGBTQ liaison for some time now.

Merkan has been championing Jacksonville’s LGBTQ community for almost 20 years as policy director for the LGBTQ youth organization JASMYN and chair of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality.

As part of his work with the Sheriff’s Office, he helped with expanding its anti-discrimination employment policies to protect LGBTQ employees and applicants a couple years ago.

“They were very receptive to that and we were very happy to work with them on getting that language right and making it happen,” Merkan said.

What’s still lacking, he said, is a public LGBTQ liaison, a position many other police departments have added.

“It’s a way to build trust, to gain information, to be accountable, to provide training, to recruit so that you have better diversity within your sheriff’s office and so on,” Merkan said.

Related: Jacksonville Homicide Investigation Raises Questions, Concerns In LGBT Community

A task force on community engagement, which Sheriff Mike Williams called for after he was elected, recommended JSO appoint an LGBT liaison in late 2016, as well as liaisons for other demographics, including the Hispanic population. The committee recommended using a model like one in Washington D.C.

But those appointments haven’t been made.

“I don’t understand why that happened,” Merkan said. “I was kind of stunned.”

It was one of more than 100 recommendations coming from four task forces also looking into JSO’s transparency, training and resources.  

A separate body — the Commission on Progress appointed by the sheriff prioritized those recommendations and got rid of duplication.

Marlo Zarka, with the Sheriff’s Office, who worked on this commission, said instead of appointing liaisons for specific groups of citizens, Williams established the Sheriff’s Watch program, a network of citizen-led groups that meet monthly to discuss law enforcement matters.  

The sheriff’s watch liaison helps arrange 19 public sheriff’s watch meetings a month around the city.

“Part of that role is to ensure that everybody in the community knows about these meetings,” Zarka said.

JSO officers attend the meetings to listen and provide information.

“These 19 groups serve a pivotal role in JSO’s understanding of the issues and concerns of our community,” said JSO spokesman Chris Brown in an email.

Merkan said a JSO officer has been named a point person for LGBTQ advocacy leadership to meet with, but the public doesn’t know of this person and it's not an official title. 

“That’s really problematic because it doesn’t give people in the broader community the opportunity to have those conversations as well,” Merkan said.

Brown said the person is a detective assigned to the Intelligence Unit who serves as JSO’s LGBTQ liaison, specifically in the arena of hate crimes.

“We cannot name that detective because he/she serves in an undercover capacity,” Brown said.

Photo used under Creative Commons.

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