A frightened Kansas City mother rushed to the nearest police station one afternoon in September after her 14-year-old hadn’t come home from school.
At the front desk, Judith Boris shared every detail she could think of that could help police find him.
What he was wearing when he went to his classes that day. Descriptions of his hair and eye color. His height. His weight. The scars on his face.
Then, police asked for the teen’s name.
“Legal name? Or what name he goes by?” Boris asked.
It was an important question in this case. The teen is transgender, answers to a name different from his legal name and uses male pronouns, Boris explained to police.
But later in a missing persons flier distributed to local media, police primarily identified the missing teen by his legal name and used the wrong gender.
LGBTQ advocates say that can endanger people who are transgender and can lead to law enforcement losing the trust of a community that already fears being targeted or discriminated against.
Melissa Brown, a local advocate with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, told The Kansas City Star that seeing the flier for the missing teen broke her heart. The bulletin left out key details and included “a bunch of misgendering,” putting the teen at risk, she said. The teen was eventually located, but the case is now being investigated as a possible sexual assault.
The Star is not naming the teen as the newspaper generally does not name minors who may be victims of assault.
People who identify as transgender can be more at risk as victims of violence. At least 24 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the U.S. this year, with three of those deaths occurring in the Kansas City area, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
A report released in November by the FBI counted 7,120 hate crime incidents in 2018. Of that total, 168 incidents were motivated by gender identity bias, a 41 percent increase from 2017.
The Kansas City Police Department has been praised by one national figure for being forthcoming in identifying victims of homicide who are trans and for having an LGBTQ liaison officer. But it falls short, local advocates suggest, when the liaison isn’t looped in on cases like that of the missing teen.
In response to questions about the missing teenager’s case, Kansas City police spokesman Capt. Tim Hernandez said he could not say why the flier was written the way it was or why it lacked essential information such as the child’s age and physical description. The flier was written by officers in the Missing Persons Unit.
Any misunderstanding or miscommunication “was unintentional,” Hernandez said.
Unintentional or not, some advocates say this is one example that shows those in law enforcement need ongoing training to better serve people in the LGBTQ community.
When it comes to gender identity, police and advocates agree that sometimes complications can arise. Both say there are ways to navigate them.
When police don’t correctly identify transgender people who are victims of violence, it can “diminish trust within the community, confuse investigations and reinforce the very prejudice at the heart of this violence,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.
Misgendering — whether done intentionally or through carelessness — undermines the ability of law enforcement to investigate when a person who is transgender is a victim of violence or has disappeared, McBride said. Police reports that describe a victim as a man in women’s clothing, or use the person’s former name, can also problematic and disrespectful, according to advocates.
“Outing” a trans person who has gone missing also could put them or their family members in danger, said Steph Perkins, executive director of PROMO, a Missouri-based LGBTQ advocacy organization.
When a person’s gender identity is unclear or unknown, advocates often suggest that police should avoid choosing a gender or use neutral pronouns until more information can be obtained.
Brown was out of town when Boris’ child disappeared in September, but remembers seeing the brief missing-persons bulletin that identified the teen using incorrect pronouns.
“This actually endangered (the teen) even more putting this out, so that’s where my concern is,” Brown said. “Is KCPD listening to the community? Are they hearing when we’re saying this is not how that person identified. Can you please shift that language?”
When people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming disappear or die from homicide, police and advocates are often at the mercy of family and the community in what they can learn about them.
The timing of coming out is also something to consider.
“People don’t come out to every single person in their whole life at once, and so often people who identify as part of the transgender community — whether that’s because they identify as transgender or non binary or a host of other identities under the transgender umbrella — their friends may know them as transgender and their family may not or vice versa,” Perkins said.
McBride, of the Human Rights Campaign, points to the Kansas City Police Department as an example of an agency that has taken steps over the last few years to serve the transgender community “with respect and dignity.”
Police showed the ability to meet that need in 2019 when two killings occurred in the city involving victims who were transgender.
In June, Brooklyn Lindsey, 32, was found dead with obvious signs of trauma to the face and gunshot wounds in the 600 block of Spruce Avenue, close to the same intersection where Dominquez was killed four years earlier.
Then, in October, Brianna “BB” Hill, 30, was fatally shot in the 4300 block of Hardesty Avenue.
After each death, the police department’s news release shared the victims’ birth name along with how they chose to be identified. Police said they would refer to the victims by their preferred names and asked media to do so as well.
The Kansas City Police Department partnered with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project in 2015 to provide LGBTQ awareness training to its recruits, officers and staff. The training included instruction on LGBTQ terminology and identities and how to effectively advocate and be inclusive of LGBTQ communities.
Training is provided to recruits at the police academy primarily through the department’s diversity coordinator and LGBTQ liaison and occasionally delivered to officers. But advocates say they would like to see the training delivered to all officers and on a more regular basis. They also want to see the police department allocate resources toward employing full-time liaisons and ensuring those officers are affirmed and supported in their roles.
The police department said it believes there is “more to relationship building than training.” One way the police department is able to build a relationship with the community, it said, is through the liaison officer.
Officer Kim Shaw-Ellis has been the department’s LGBTQ liaison since the start of 2017 and is a part of the community herself. The purpose of the liaison, she says, is to help community members have their voices heard when concerns arise, offer ideas for policies or training and assist the investigations unit when crimes occur involving members of the LGBTQ community.
There is “a strong desire, a strong hunger” for that education, Shaw-Ellis said. So much so that other agencies have been inspired to establish their own LGBTQ liaisons. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in Kansas is one of them.
Shaw-Ellis has been in law enforcement for 32 years, most of that time spent in Kansas City. The majority of officers, she says, “really do care and want to do the right thing,” but recognize that some in the community may be afraid or hesitant to call police when they need help.
Shaw-Ellis was not notified about the missing transgender teenager, and wasn’t involved in crafting the public bulletin about his case.
In the spring, the police department cut back Shaw-Ellis’ liaison duties and temporarily assigned her to teach basic training at the regional police academy, where she has spent about 80 percent of her time in the past several months.
The department said it plans to have Shaw-Ellis return to liaison duties after one of the classes graduates in January.
Looking back to the September afternoon when her child disappeared, Boris says, the police department could have done better.
It happened after school one Friday. Boris received a text from the teen before school let out that day, asking if he could walk home, she said.
The school and the family’s home are about two miles apart, but he had walked before, Boris said. She planned to pick up her other two teens from their school that afternoon, so she thought she would cross his path.
On the road, Boris started looking for her child. She called his cellphone. It went to voicemail.
She waited, thinking he would show up at home or at one of his favorite hangout spots, the library. He didn’t show up.
After driving around the neighborhood, she went to the police department and reported the teen missing.
This was the first time something like this had happened, Boris explained to police.
“I gave them everything that I knew,” Boris said. “Shoes, pants, shirt, backpack, glasses, hair, scars on his face … I’m thinking from top to bottom, every descriptive thing I can give you of my child.”
Police jotted down the information, Boris said. She provided a picture.
In return, police gave Boris a phone number for the missing persons unit and a case number.
The bulletin police later distributed lacked essential information such as the teen’s age, hair color, eye color, weight and height.
It used female pronouns and led with the teen’s previous name.
Friends told Boris to avoid the news stories online, but she looked at some out of curiosity, she said.
“We didn’t know where my child was, we didn’t know who had my child, and if my child has been going by (another name) for the last year and a half and identifies as male, and you’re suddenly saying (the legal name) and ‘she’ … and people were confused,” Boris said. “Are we looking for a boy? Or are we looking for a girl?”
Hernandez, the police spokesman, said when police enter information into their system for a missing person, “we can’t put the name in as someone other than their legal name.”
“If someone goes through the court and legally changes their name, yes, then we can enter it in,” Hernandez said. “We try to do everything we can to be respectful as far as putting out the identification and information on our press releases.”
In the missing teen’s case, police included the teen’s legal name and noted another name he goes by.
Generally speaking, Hernandez said, the police department isn’t always able to get all of the details initially in each case and tries to provide updates as information comes in. In this case, Hernandez said he doesn’t know what information police had been given at the time, “but I know they wanted to get this out as quick as they could.”
To his knowledge, he added, police were not notified of a request to correct the information.
Boris said she managed four hours of sleep that night.
Several people offered to help look, Boris said, “but I was worried because anything could have happened. Not only the fact that this is a kid, but is it hate because my kid identifies as transgender?”
More than 24 hours after the teen disappeared, Boris said, she finally received a call from her child. Police confirmed the teen had been located safe.
But Boris said within half an hour of getting the call, she took him to the hospital to have a rape kit collected.
Boris learned the teen had been talking with a person over a chat app and made plans to meet in a public place. At some point during the encounter, Boris believes, someone took her teen to an apartment where he was sexually assaulted.
The mother said some of what happened to her child that night is unclear. An investigation by the Kansas City Police Department is underway.
“I would like answers. I would like this person to be caught,” Boris said. “I would like it for adult men to leave underage people alone, whether they’re straight, gay, trans, doesn’t matter. It’s still a minor. That is still a child.”
Nearly three months after the incident, Boris says she’s still waiting on updates from police.