A groundbreaking survey reports that nearly 2 out of 3 transgender people say they've been victims of physical assault. Most of those crimes are never reported to police. This year, the Justice Department wants to change that by training law enforcement to be more sensitive to the needs of trans people in their communities.
Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole says its new training program is motivated by a simple yet powerful idea.
"The department recognizes what is often lost in the debates about transgender individuals, and it's that transgender lives are human lives," Cole told a group of about 130 police and community activists who recently gathered at the Justice Department to unveil the new program. "We heard you when you told us that we needed to establish a foundation of trust between those who serve and protect the public and those in the LGBT community, particularly the transgender community."
In charge of the project is Justice's Community Relations Service unit, known as CRS. The service came to life in the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a way to dial down desegregation tensions in the South.
"And for nearly 50 years CRS has served as America's peacemaker," says Grande Lum, who runs the unit.
Its lawyers, teachers and former police officers still work to keep the peace at racial hot spots around the country. But Lum says now they're focusing on civil rights challenges long in the shadows and only recently brought to general attention through the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
"CRS works with communities to prevent and respond to violent hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender and of course gender identity," Lum says.
Increasingly, that means doing more to reach out to transgender people.
Diego Sanchez, director of policy for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, helped to develop the new Justice Department training.
"It can be very difficult to interact with law enforcement officials," Sanchez tells NPR. "We're people like everyone else. We're not any different than anyone else. However, when we're encountered by law enforcement officers, we often find challenges both in being seen or respected."
And Sanchez says that's why many crimes go unreported. "While we are at greater risk perhaps for violence on the street, we're also less likely to report that to law enforcement officers," he adds.
Sanchez, the first openly transgender person to have worked as a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill, says those barriers can be overcome. It's as simple as using a person's preferred name, or gender pronoun, or asking for identification in a safe and respectful way.
"First thing they'll do is ask for the driver's license," he says. "If the gender that is indicated on the license doesn't match who the officer thinks they're looking at, if they say something loudly and then leave, they're leaving in danger that individual in their neighborhood."
Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality says too often, police treat trans people like they're doing something suspicious just for being themselves.
"Profiling by law enforcement, particularly transgender women of color, report that when they are walking in certain areas of a city, that they will get stopped for what they call 'walking while trans,' " Tobin says.
In one well-known instance, Tobin says, civil rights investigators found the New Orleans Police Department unconstitutionally profiled transgender women of color.
CRS has responded to several incidents of hate violence in recent years, including in Puerto Rico, where 18 LGBT people were murdered between 2010 and 2012. Sanchez says while chilling episodes of violence such as these still happen, awareness of transgender rights is growing.
"I've been working and being a trans person for about 30 years, and I will say that things are different today than ever," he says.
He hopes that better training for police and greater cultural sensitivity will eliminate what he calls useless and needless violence.