Transgender competency training for Jersey police under consideration

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently remanded to a lower-court judge for further consideration the issue of whether the Jersey City Police Department must institute an annual transgender sensitivity-training program for its employees.

The May 8 ruling stems from the case of M. Holmes, a trans man who was harassed by Jersey City police in February 2013. While being detained on a shoplifting charge, Holmes was “severely” mistreated due to his trans status, according to court records.

A police sergeant allegedly told Holmes: “Next time you come in here and you want to be treated like a man, I’ll put my fist down your throat like a fucking man.” Other police officers referred to Holmes as “it,” called his situation “bulls–t,” and remarked, “So that’s a f–king girl?” according to court records.

Holmes filed suit in 2014, contending that a police station is a public accommodation where anti-trans abuse and degradation is prohibited under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Additionally, the suit contended that police created a hostile environment at the police station, which also violates the LAD.

In May 2018,  an eight-member jury ruled that Holmes was subjected to hostile treatment by Jersey City police while being detained in 2013. Jurors didn’t award any damages to Holmes. But their verdict cleared the way for Holmes’ attorneys to receive about $115,000 from the police department for their attorneys’ fees, ruled Hudson County Superior Court Judge Martha D. Lynes. 

However, the police department appealed the $115,000 attorneys’ fee award to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. The police department also appealed Lynes’ ruling that it must conduct annual transgender-sensitivity training for its employees on an annual basis.

In a 15-page ruling issued on May 8, the appellate court said Lynes should have given both sides a chance to file briefs and present oral arguments prior to ruling that a transgender-sensitivity training program must be implemented by the police department.

“Our decision to remand should in no way be viewed as indicating whether imposing training requirements on the JCPD was a proper exercise of the court’s equitable powers under the Law Against Discrimination,” the court opinion states.

Regarding the attorneys’ fee issue, the court said the exact amount to be awarded to Holmes’ attorneys will be determined after Lynes holds oral arguments and issues a new ruling on whether the JCPD must institute a transgender-sensitivity training program.

“We leave it to [Lynes], following [her] consideration of the parties’ respective arguments on remand, to determine the extent of required training, if any. We further leave it to [Lynes’] discretion as to whether [she] should allow the parties to present documentary evidence and testimony not previously presented,” the appellate opinion states. 

Kevin M. Costello, an attorney for Holmes, said he’s pleased with the opinion. “We’re pleased that the appellate court affirmed that a victim of gender-identity discrimination need not win money in order to be a ‘catalyst’ — to use the court’s word — for positive change. The affirmation means that fighting against discrimination is a worthy end, in and of itself. We look forward to a deeper dive, in briefing and argument, on the appropriate equitable remedies meant to further the cause of justice and accountability for the Jersey City Police Department.”

A spokesperson for the Jersey City Police Department had no comment for this story.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, the Keystone Press and the Pennsylvania Press Club.