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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Discrimination Case Against Johnson City Resolved

In October 2007, 40 men were caught in a sting in Johnson City. At the insistence of the police department, their names, addresses and photos were published in the Johnson City Press.

The day after the publication, one of the men took his own life.

In October of 2008 one of the men, Kenneth Giles, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city of Johnson City. Giles was represented by Lambda Legal.

Yesterday, Lambda Legal issued the following
press release:
Lambda Legal Discrimination Case Resolved: Johnson City Police Department Updates Policies and Adds Training

"These measures show a commitment to treating all people equally. This is a win-win situation for everyone."

(Johnson City, Tennessee, January 25, 2010) - Today Lambda Legal announces the resolution of a lawsuit against the Johnson City Police Department in Tennessee, on behalf of Kenneth Giles whose photo was made available to the media, contrary to the Department's usual practices.

"We applaud Chief Lowry's decision to use this dispute to examine, clarify, and update the police department's policies, practices, and training programs," said Greg Nevins, Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office based in Atlanta. "We believe these actions will not only help avoid future disputes like this one, but also lay the groundwork for improved relations between the police department and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Johnson City. These measures show a commitment to treating all people equally. This is a win-win situation for everyone."

On October 1, 2007, the Department issued a press release that included photos of 40 men arrested in a public sex sting operation. The local news ran the story prominently along with pictures and addresses of the men involved. Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit asserting that it is improper and discriminatory to single out certain groups of people for increased public attention by publicizing their arrest photographs. Lambda Legal reviewed hundreds of news releases issued by the JCPD in the year leading up to the October 1, 2007 release and found that no other release pertaining to arrests was accompanied by photos. Mr. Giles attributed the loss of his job to the enhanced publicity surrounding his arrest.

Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry denied any discriminatory motive, stating that the JCPD's media efforts related to the sting operation served the rational goal of dissuading others from illegal conduct. Even so, Chief Lowry stated that, irrespective of his views on the merits of the lawsuit, both his Department and residents of Johnson City are best served by the Department's adopting a nondiscrimination policy that conforms to the guarantees of equal protection in the U.S. Constitution and updating the JCPD media policy to address the release of arrestee photographs. Chief Lowry announced a program to train JCPD officers on the policies and to recognize and avoid conduct that would violate those guarantees. The training will also be aimed at improving the interactions between the JCPD and members of minority groups, including but not limited to persons whose sexual orientation is other than heterosexual, while the officers carry out their duties in the community.

Greg Nevins, Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office, handled the case, along with cooperating attorneys John T. Winemiller of Merchant & Gould; and Lisa A. Linsky, Jill Basinger, Molly Logan and Brian Tiemann of McDermott, Will & Emery.
The Johnson City Press posted the story yesterday:
The Johnson City Police Department will clarify and update its policies and practices when it comes to dealing with minority groups — signaling the resolution Monday to a lawsuit stemming from the so-called “man cave” arrests.

One of the 40 men charged in a 2007 city park sex sting filed a federal lawsuit in 2008 against the city and Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry because he says the police department gave his arrest excessive publicity. Each man’s photograph was released at a police news conference about the sting, and later published by area media.

Kenneth Giles, of Bristol, Va., filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville because he said the city violated his right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the complaint.

Lowry defended his decision to release the photographs, saying it was never the police department’s intention to discriminate against anyone. But, he said, the department did not have a “well-defined” policy to address releasing an arrestee’s photograph.

After consulting with CALEA, the accreditation organization for law enforcement, Lowry has “directed that existing departmental policy be re-calibrated so as to address the issue when an arrestee’s photograph should be included in a press release,” he said in a news release.

“It is very important that law enforcement officers treat all citizens with whom they come in contact in a professional and nondiscriminatory manner,” Lowry said.

“The purpose for the news conference regarding the arrests at the city’s parks was to get the word out that the behavior taking place in the city’s parks would not be tolerated and would be stopped.”

Lowry said the undercover operation started after the police department received citizen complaints about sexual activity taking place at the city’s parks.

Greg Nevins, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the organization that represented Giles, said he’s pleased with the resolution that JCPD will address its policies and provide officer training on how to better deal with minority groups.

Lambda Legal, according to its Web site, www.lambdalegal.org  , “is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.”

Lowry, in a news release, said the resolution is an “opportunity” for the JCPD to review its policies.

“Even though the lawsuit has been resolved without the payment of any money to the plaintiff, Chief John Lowry sees the lawsuit as a learning experience and an opportunity for the Johnson City Police Department to evaluate its policies and practices when dealing with members of a minority group,” the release said.

Nevins said changing policy and providing education and training for officers was the goal all along.

“That was the goal of the lawsuit — to make sure this wouldn’t happen again and to provide some education and training for the department in a good way,” Nevin said. “It’s a win-win situation. Both sides took a very responsible approach toward arriving at a solution that would be mutually beneficial,” he said.

Giles was fired by letter from his nursing job at the Veterans Administration two weeks after Lowry’s news conference. The termination letter stated that because Giles’ name and photograph were in the newspaper, the “notoriety reflected poorly” on the employer, according to the lawsuit.

Nevins said it was a struggle for Giles to find work, but has found suitable employment.

“I think he really deserves to be congratulated on this. He was willing to step forward after having gone through what he and the others went through,” Nevins said.

Lowry said the department did not meet with any local gay and lesbian groups to discuss any concerns about how the news conference was handled, but meetings did occur between the city and Lambda Legal.

Nevins said the lawsuit was never about money, but Giles wanted to change the way gays and lesbians are treated by law enforcement.

“The fact he was willing to resolve this case in a way to put in (place) the new policiies and training, I think speak very well of him. He is a man of principle and he wanted to” do the right thing, Nevins said.

“It’s better for the LGBT community in Johnson City for the police to say they’ll recognize the equal protection rights LGBT people have and they will put training in place,” he said.

Lowry did not specify exactly what policies might be changed or what training police officers would have in order to follow the terms of the suit dismissal, but Nevins said Lambda Legal will follow the changes.

“Obviously the policies are a matter of public record. We’re going to be offering them information about trainers and materials,” Nevins said. “We’re not concerned about it. Chief Lowry indicated this is something he wanted to do and he felt it would be good for his officers.”

Every law enforcement officer “has a duty to enforce the law even-handedly and without consideration to social status, ethnic background, or a person’s membership in any particular group," Lowry said.

It is a win-win for the city of Johnson City and the LGBT community here. We are working to build bridges between the police department our LGBT citizens.

Thanks to Kenneth Giles, the team at Lambda Legal, and the Johnson City Police Department for agreeing to update its policies.

Dr. Kerry Holland, president of PFLAG Tri-Cities, will release a statement regarding this case.


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