The 1960s were a terrifying time for the LGBTQ+ community. The medical industry diagnosed homosexuality as a mental illness, and less than a two-hour drive from Santa Barbara, Atascadero State Hospital administered tortured conversion therapy. The gay community was afraid of the police. And there was good reason. Police enforced anti-gay laws, regularly raided gay-serving establishments, and gay communities often resorted to self-policing because they knew the police would not protect them. In fact, the modern Gay Pride movement first began as a result of police abuse.
On June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, police initiated yet another raid. But this time, patrons resisted and revolted for four nights. The next year, the first Pride March commemorated the LGBTQ+ activists who fought against oppression and abuse at the hands of police. The Stonewall uprising marked a major turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement in the United States and around the world.
Fifty years later, the tumultuous relationships between law enforcement and the LGBTQ+ community are giving way to changes for the better. In Santa Barbara, the Pacific Pride Foundation and the Restorative Community Network created the Voices program with the Santa Barbara Police Department to bring officers and the LGBTQ+ community together in restorative and informative dialogue.
The Pacific Pride Foundation has long been the county’s advocacy and educational nonprofit for the gay community — throughout the expanding and contemporary definition of “queer” — toiling with many partner organizations to bring a diverse community through the fatal threat of HIV/AIDS to a point of joyous visibility and dignified success. The Voices collaboration with the Restorative Community Network enables a growing ability to address the complex social issues that can harm all of Santa Barbara’s communities.
Most recently, the Pacific Pride Foundation hosted five officers from the Santa Barbara Police Department and five members of the LGBTQ+ community for a conversation that bridged a divide and provided education for all.
When Chief Lori Luhnow joined the SBPD, she brought with her a new level of Community-Oriented Policing, a philosophy and strategy of policing that focuses on building relationships and working closely in proactive partnership with members of the communities.
Shortly thereafter, Lieutenants Shawn Hill and Charlie Katsapas worked with community members to develop the Voices program as a way to strengthen relationships with vulnerable communities and understand their perspectives and experiences. It also provides a forum at which the community can hear the perspectives and experiences of officers.
Voices is an innovative and research-informed workshop bringing together police officers and many different groups who have felt historically targeted by law enforcement. Through the program, the groups engage in meaningful dialogue with the purpose of healing and strengthening relationships.
Many of the participating community members have experienced or witnessed negative interactions with law enforcement. The participating police officers are often those who are new to the department or recent graduates of a police academy. After more than seven dialogue sessions with incarcerated youth, formerly incarcerated adults, the undocumented Spanish-speaking community members, community activists, and the LGBTQ+ community, the Voices program has improved relationships and provided an increased sense of safety and well-being in the Santa Barbara community.
This June celebrates 50 years of Pride and the commemoration of the Stonewall uprising. Times have changed. And so has policing. Through Community-Oriented Policing, specialized trainings, restorative dialogue, skillful and respectful responses to hate crimes, and hiring officers who reflect the community it services, the relationship between police and Santa Barbara’s LGBTQ+ communities have begun to shift from fear to partnership.