Out U.S. Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero speaks on LGBTQ+ visibility

Until recently, the role of United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania never had a woman of color or an LGBTQ+ person in the post. That all changed on June 21, 2022 — appropriately during Pride Month — when Jacqueline C. Romero was sworn into the role. With this position, Romero is the chief federal law enforcement officer in all federal criminal prosecutions and civil litigations involving the United States in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. She also supervises 140 attorneys who prosecute federal civil rights cases in Philadelphia and surrounding counties.

Romero spoke with PGN about her accomplishments since taking office, the work she plans to do in the future, her previous work with the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association and the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility.

You were sworn in as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania during Pride month last year? What does that mean for you?
I haven’t really thought about it in terms of it’s Pride Month, and I’m getting confirmed until you really just asked that question. So, in some ways, that’s pretty tremendous, because this office has been in existence for over 230 years. And the President of the United States in the entire time has never appointed an openly gay individual. So I think it’s significant and impactful for the community. 

You’re the first woman of color and the first LGBTQ+ person to serve in this role. What kind of challenges have you faced as a result of these intersecting identities, both leading up to your appointment as well as after?
I don’t necessarily see them as challenges. People come to any position with their diversity of background, whether it’s ethnic diversity, their gender diversity, economic diversity, and for me personally, who I am, how I grew up, and just the things that make me up, I think, adds strength to who I am. They add diversity of viewpoints and opinions and just really make me a whole person. So I’ve never really seen it as something that has been a problem, more of a strength.

Since your appointment, can you talk about some of your major accomplishments?
Obviously here in the city of Philadelphia, my biggest focus is violent crimes. Everyone reads the news and hears about carjackings and all sorts of things going on downtown with retail theft and people tearing up stores or protesting. That has to be front and center. Public safety is my number one job, so I have doubled the amount of assistant US attorneys that we have in our violent crime unit, supplementing that unit with special assistant US attorneys. And we have been participating in a carjacking task force with the ATF and with the FBI and doing tremendous work prosecuting carjacking cases, both as just a deterrent and as a way to punish people for this kind of behavior. 

We can’t have the level of violent crimes that we’re seeing continued, particularly firearms cases. We’ve been taking on more and more of those cases. One of my big focuses with the violent crime cases is data-driven complex cases where we’re going after the worst of the worst people who are involved in organizational crime that are doing this to make money; that we disrupt, dismantle and make it impossible for them to operate in the city. That has been just a huge focus of my first year and I think we are starting to see numbers drop in terms of violent crimes. And hopefully what we’re doing here is making a difference on that level.

Along with the violent crimes, you can’t talk about that without talking about opioids, and we’re doing everything we can to go after the sources of opioids — the folks that are trafficking in the drugs and bringing them into our district, again, the large organizations. Beyond that, we’re going after the doctors and the pharmacies and the pharmaceutical companies that are pushing drugs in the way that a drug dealer would in illegal ways and acting as pill mills and bringing as many of those cases as we can to serve as a deterrent. And to really disrupt and stop the flow of opioids into our district. I could go on and on in terms of the hiring that we’ve been doing in our office and really making sure that we’ve got enough lines in the USA to handle the amount of work we have. I focused on [the] Allentown office. For a large period of time, we’ve doubled the amount of assistant US attorneys we have up there, literally built out the office. We just finished construction this month. So that is a true branch office because there’s a whole quarter of drugs and guns and human trafficking going through Allentown up to New York, and we as an office have to be ready to meet that challenge. And we are now ready to meet that challenge. And we will meet the challenge.

What work would you like to accomplish that you haven’t done already?
We’ve done a ton of hiring of staff in the office. And I’m focusing heavily on making sure that the workforce is ready to go into the courthouse and have an impact. And that means a tremendous amount of tweaking and working on our training protocols and how we develop our young talent so that they become mid-level talent and are seasoned prosecutors ready to do what they need to do and to have a serious impact. So that’s a big focus right now over the next year.

We’re also working on some pilot programs. For instance, [the] 22nd District, which includes the Kensington area, is a real hotspot and we’re starting to bring together other law enforcement entities. And when I say law enforcement, it’s not just federal law enforcement. It’s [the] local police department. SEPTA has their own police. School systems have security officers in the school systems. And it’s bringing in all of the people that have a vested interest in a place like the 22nd — housing, police officers and sharing intelligence. Where are the hotspots? Where are the real drug deals being made? Where are the houses that we know are acting as drug houses? Who are the organizations that are bringing the stuff into this district? And how can we as law enforcement share this intelligence and have a huge impact go after the really bad actors and dismantle these organizations? That’s a big pilot thing that we’re pushing. 

We had tremendous success here in Center City with working with Center City districts and bringing all of those same kinds of partners to the table. We’ve got national park police involved [and] the US Marshals that are at the courthouse. The United States Mint has foot patrols here in Center City, the school district, SEPTA — all of these folks, we brought together. We have monthly meetings. We share the intelligence. And we’ve identified where the hotspots are downtown, and how can we have more of a foot patrol presence? And how can we get ahead of crime before it happens? We’ve had a tremendous impact on the downtown area. I want to roll that out to other hotspots throughout the city and maybe beyond to other counties as a model for law enforcement, working with communities, working with the locals, and really getting ahead of the crime.

Can you talk a little bit about your time with the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association and how it prepared you for this role?
I can’t say enough about the organization, the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association. They do a tremendous job supporting lawyers throughout the city. They host events where people have an opportunity to network and meet other lawyers — maybe in the same field, maybe from different fields — and learn different things. I have been a member of the organization for many years and kind of worked my way up through the organization initially just showing up as a young lawyer there and meeting people and networking, and eventually taking on leadership roles. I served as the co-chair of their Continuing Legal Education department, so we would put on trainings for other lawyers, and partner with groups in the city. And for me, it was a great tool to work on relationship building, bringing people together [and] putting on meaningful trainings for lawyers. Those are all things that I now use — skills that I use as the United States Attorney, whether it’s trainings for my own staff, bringing law enforcement personnel together to share intelligence, bringing the community in to work with us on cases and build relationships. Those are all things that I certainly picked up being a member of the Bar Association. 

Why is it important for an LGBTQ+ person to be in this role?
Well, I’m a firm believer in the phrase visibility saves lives. For young folk who are coming out and looking for role models — people who look and sound like them and who come from backgrounds that they come from — it is so important for me to be in this kind of position, working with the top law enforcement in the area, serving in this role, serving in the community. It is so important for me to be here, to be an out lesbian and just living my life and being a leader in the city, ecause visibility does save lives. 

What piece of advice would you give LGBTQ+ people who are in your field?
One of the big things, pieces of advice that I always give our queer folk who come and talk to me and ask for advice is that you should be your authentic self. Don’t try to be something that you’re not because you’re afraid of what people might think. Giving away your power in that way is probably one of the worst things that you can do. Be your authentic self 100% of the time. 

Then there’s just practical advice that I generally give young folks who are coming up in their careers. And that is, “First in last out.” You have to be one of the best workers as a young person. You have to be the person who makes yourself useful. You take on the projects that a lot of other people look at as scut work or it’s beneath them and make yourself useful and roll up your sleeves and work really hard, because that is the kind of stuff that will get you noticed in a workplace and quickly get you on the promotional path.