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Meet the gay Twin Cities cops who straddle the rift between police, community

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

Gay Pride in the Sheriff’s Office

Metro Transit Police Sgt. Dave Hutchinson was driving down Lake Street one day when the friendly neighborhood addict, Crackhead Freddy, flagged him down.

As Hutchinson tells it, Freddy was a good guy with a tragic habit and a tendency to wander into traffic. He waved cops in the direction of a woman with a black eye who’d just been mugged by a group of young men.

A Spanish-speaking officer learned the woman hailed from Guatemala. She’d been waiting for the bus when a man sucker-punched her in the face. He and his friends made off with her purse and $3,000 cash—many months of wages.

Yet the woman refused to file a report. She didn’t want police to show up at her house and deport her husband.

The incident left a smoldering impression on Hutchinson. Crimes against immigrants, whom criminals considered easy targets, made him want to run for sheriff of Hennepin County.

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For years he’d mulled a challenge to the cocksure conservative incumbent, Rich Stanek—even before Hutchinson came out as gay to fellow officers. A campaign would expose him.

Cops tend to lean Republican. Theirs is an alpha culture rife with rough talk and indelicate feeling. No one suspected him, Hutchinson says, because he wasn’t “pretty” in the stereotypical sense. Privately, he was hyper-aware he was a rarity in policing, different in ways others might not tolerate.

“I thought, I’m not going to come out unless there’s a reason to,” Hutchinson says. “But before that, working as a gay cop among Type A personalities, it was tough. I had to hide.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t his choice. In 2013, Hutchinson wed boyfriend Justin on a beach in Key West. He tried to keep the photos off Facebook. But a fellow Metro Transit officer would eventually dig them up.

The officer emailed the photos to a few old-school cops. The rumor mill churned. Word eventually reached Hutchinson’s longtime partner, Sidney Jones.

The two served together on the Northside Community Engagement Team, charged with improving relationships between police and public. Jones was older and a devout Baptist. Hutchinson assumed the news would destroy their friendship.

Jones approached Hutchinson in a precinct garage.

“I looked at him. He was my partner for many years. He had my back and I had his,” Jones recalls. His advice for Hutchinson: “Just be man enough to stand up and be the man you are. Don’t worry about nothing else and what nobody else is saying.”

It was an enlightening moment, Hutchinson says. Being outed paved his way to run for sheriff.

LGBT voters came out in force to help him upset Stanek. Hutchinson’s father, Jerry, a retired Burnsville cop, pinned his badge. Upcoming battles include improving the treatment of transgender jail inmates, separating federal immigration enforcement from public safety, and lobbying for responsible legal marijuana provisions.

That 39-year-old Hutchinson can achieve the higher office necessary to enact reform is a testament to the gay cops preceding him.

His chief of staff, Rob Allen, a former Minneapolis police inspector, is one. He came out in the late 1980s, when colleagues made a sideshow of raiding bars and bathhouses, bragging about getting the young men they arrested to kill themselves.

“That’s a pretty gut-wrenching thing to hear, and it really made me question if I wanted to be a police officer,” Allen recalls. “But then again, I’m from Minneapolis, I went to Central High, and maybe I felt like I could change some stuff eventually.”

In recent years, two groups have rubbed against Gay Pride’s all-are-welcome tradition: corporations and cops. Some people believe corporations have only leapt aboard the rainbow bandwagon for marketing optics once it was politically safe to do so. Others invoke cops’ long history of bashing gays.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the desire to preserve the memory of this brutality is more pronounced than ever.

To the people who occupy the uneasy overlap between police and the LGBT community, it’s difficult not to take the widening dissonance personally. Allen confesses to feeling the whole is blamed for the acts of a few.

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“I’m not trying to say it’s a few bad apples. There are systemic issues in law enforcement that need to be fixed,” he says. “But there are an awful lot of police who are doing really good things in the community, and among those are many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who, at not a small amount of risk to themselves, put themselves out there for their community.”

II. The Original Gays

In 1969, Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. Young men were being conscripted to die in a war many found ill-justified. The American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder.

John Moore and Jim Anderson were students at the University of Minnesota and members of Fight the Repression of Erotic Expression, America’s first queer campus group.

As teens they witnessed a gay man’s beating in Loring Park. When they went for help, the cops said they’d get to it after dinner. Neither the Star nor the Tribune, separate papers at the time, would cover the story. The public viewed gay men as child molesters who deserved what they got, Moore says. Friends jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge when they couldn’t take it any longer.

One night in New York City, police stormed the Stonewall Inn, the outcast catchall of Greenwich Village. Witnesses say they lined up patrons and looked up people’s skirts to determine their sex. As some arrestees fought back, a violent mob coalesced, hurling bricks and bottles.

Gays beat on cops, which had never happened before. For days the streets were strewn with flaming trash, wrecked cars, and the remains of jukeboxes and cigarette machines. The gay rights movement
had arrived.

But as LGBT people emerged into the mainstream, violent backlash accelerated.

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Moore and Anderson bought the Saloon in 1980 from a group of Jewish families who were among the few businesspeople in town with no social capital to lose from running a gay bar. The previous owners bribed city officials to avoid harassment. But to Moore and Anderson, the windowless Saloon was a sacred space where queer people could find work and get advice on navigating the world. They would pay no tithes.

Wells Fargo denied them a checking account, calling the business immoral. The city held up its license for two years. The health department issued fines. The fire marshal barged in to count heads. Cops would turn on the lights and shut off the music, blocking the doors so patrons couldn’t escape.

On New Year’s Eve 1982, bouncers John Hanson and Rick Hunter scuffled with passing drunks who’d called them “queers and f—s.” Police arrived, clubbed the gay men within an inch of their lives, and arrested them for disorderly conduct.

An upstart young attorney named Jeff Anderson—who’d go on to sue hundreds of Catholic priests on behalf of child abuse victims—defended them pro bono and won. The bouncers pursued a highly publicized brutality complaint that roped in the mayor and embarrassed the chief.

The case discouraged police from beating up gay people. But it didn’t touch their hearts and minds.

It was around that time that Moore met Kevin Stoll, an Iowa transplant. Stoll wanted to be a cop in his hometown, but the background check included a polygraph asking if he’d ever had homosexual relations. He’d moved to Minneapolis to follow his childhood dream.

Moore wasn’t the least bit disturbed to hear the apparent contradiction of being a gay cop. “I understood, because nothing is either black or white unless you’re a fundamentalist. This gray area, that’s where life happens, and Kevin was willing to live in that.”

In the late 1980s, an upswell of gang violence throttled the Warehouse District at Ninth Street and Hennepin Avenue. Moore approached the Minneapolis Police Department and asked for a couple off-duty officers to staff the door. He didn’t realize Stoll’s predicament until later.

“Fuck, what am I going to do?” Moore recalls Stoll’s reaction. He and Anderson smuggled him in through the back door.

The following night, Stoll called to say he hated his covert entrance. He wanted to walk through the front door. So he did.

It was a small but seminal moment. “Kevin is the reason things have changed in Minneapolis,” Moore believes. “The two biggest old-boy clubs were obviously the Catholic Church and the police department, both protecting their own... Kevin broke that coming in the front door.”

It took several more years for LGBT officers to come out to the public.

Hate crimes spiked across the city in the summer of 1991. Twenty-one-year-old Joel Larson was shot and killed in Loring Park. A week later, former State Sen. John Chenoweth was slain on a beach in Minneapolis. Their murderer was a self-loathing gay man, son of the vice president of what was then known as Bethel College, which hosted a seminary. He told a documentary filmmaker he wanted to sow fear into well-known cruising spots so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go.

Gay people are more likely to be murdered by other gay people than by straight people, says Dallas Drake, founder of the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis. Especially back then, many were shame killings.

In response, Minneapolis Police Sgt. Sharon Lubinski came out in a front-page article in the Sunday Star Tribune. She did not mince words. “If I’m going to be a real person and if I’m ever going to make real change as a cop, I have to do it as a lesbian cop,” Lubinski said. “I can no longer justify keeping this to myself.”

Two decades later, President Barack Obama nominated her as his U.S. marshal in Minnesota—another first. She retired after Donald Trump’s election.

Stoll, who eventually became a lieutenant, followed Lubinski’s lead and came out on TV. One of the first women to die in the line of duty was Melissa Schmidt, a lesbian officer gunned down at Horn Towers in south Minneapolis. As more LGBT cops came out, they found both hostility and support, rising through the ranks under broad-minded chiefs.

Rob Allen recalls that when he took his first shot at the sergeant’s exam, locker room whispers accused him of being a diversity hire.

“Yeah, they gave him the f— test. That one’s a lot easier,” a friend retorted one day, showing Allen that, in their own crude and irascible way, allies in the department would stand up for him.

“I definitely think it makes an impact when a police officer comes out,” says Drake. “It says even among the hyper-masculine, homosexuality is accepted, or tolerated at least. And that becomes a very important benchmark. No longer can you say everybody hates gays. Not everybody does.”

Prior to becoming a criminologist, Drake served 20 years in the Burnsville fire service. He became Minnesota’s first openly gay firefighter when he came out on the local news in 1989, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. He’d been a health activist then, trying to find treatment and sound the alarm that AIDS wasn’t just a gay disease. He did a lot of interviews, and one day it just came out.

But integration was so subtle that most didn’t even notice unless they were looking for it, Drake says. Among his fellow firefighters were religious conservatives who tried to express, in stunted manner, that they were wrong to assume homosexual men were all predators out to convert the world.

“Now, on an individual level, each lesbian or gay officer can have a profound effect every time they meet the community,” says Drake. “When they’re on a call, they can make the decision whether to be nice to someone or not. Give someone a break or not. Be compassionate or not. And so the LGBT officers step in when other officers might step back. But if you’re a criminal who just robbed a bank, they’re gonna kick your ass the way everybody else does.”

III. Free for a Week

A rainbow flag flies beneath the stars and stripes at the country home of Afton city council member Lucia Wroblewski. A series of Hillary Clinton signs flank the way to the front porch, where a bumper sticker on the door reads, “Nature is my Church.”

She graduated from the St. Paul police academy in 1989, hopping with enthusiasm and sporting a mullet. She stuck out, and people talked like they knew what she was all about.

“I’m already pushing against the currents of this conservative, male-run organization. I’m already a weirdo,” Wroblewski said of her first years. “But being gay, I must tell you, if you didn’t have a thick skin, you were screwed.”

She ended up serving 28 years as an East Side patrol cop, a training officer, and as a member of the S.W.A.T. team. In her seniority, she insisted on having MSNBC on during her lunch breaks. No one messed with her. 

Things were more difficult for gay men. Today, Darin McDonald is St. Paul’s only out male officer after making a mid-career pivot to policing. Prior to the Great Recession of 2008, he was a real estate broker catering to the gay community. Following the crash, he came to better appreciate the merits of stable employment with benefits.

When McDonald applied, background exams were administered by Dr. Michael Campion, a right-wing psychiatrist who subscribed to conversion therapy. So McDonald made his orientation known, preemptively warning the department against rejecting him for being gay.

As a rookie, he was recruited to train the 700-member force on diversity and gay and lesbian issues. At times it felt like checking boxes. But because he was the only out male on staff, the duty fell to him.

McDonald has come to find that some of his colleagues are plainly prejudiced. “Obviously, there was a part of me that said, ‘I’m gonna prove all these fuckers wrong, just shove it in their faces and do their jobs 100 times better.”

Research shows crime in the LGBT community is vastly underreported due to victims’ discomfort with cops. McDonald poses a non-judgmental alternative. He’s an intermediary in conflicts between questioning kids and religious parents. He kept an eye on the former Townhouse on University Avenue, where passersby occasionally threw things at the patrons on the patio.

In 2011, religious forces convinced the state legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban same-sex unions. Gay rights activists mobilized a “Vote No” campaign.

Wroblewski and McDonald sought permission to represent the St. Paul Police Department in the Pride parade for the first time. They were few, but they intended to telegraph to the public that cops had arrived to support gay liberation in this critical hour.

“The biggest thing was more for the straights, the parents, so that they don’t see a doom-and-gloom world for their kids, that we’re everywhere and successful and happy and out,” McDonald says.

Not only did the amendment fail, but voters ousted the Capitol’s Republican majority. Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize gay marriage.

The parade that year was intoxicating. Wroblewski, waving a rainbow flag, led with the St. Paul Police honor guard while her old partner, Tim Bradley, gleefully toted a sign referring to himself as “Her Maid of Honor.”

Then, as now, gay cops viewed Pride as a life-affirming right.

Metro Transit Officer Erica Fossand was raised by a single alcoholic father in Bemidji, fell in with an older sister’s delinquent friends, survived sexual assault at 15, and was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center for assorted adolescent transgressions.

After September 11, she enlisted in the Army Reserve, where she guarded her identity for fear of a dishonorable discharge. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was “existing, but not existing,” she says. The military was the first of her public service roles in a society that did not fully accept her.

Afterward, she moved to Minneapolis to find her tribe. She enrolled at Metropolitan State University for law enforcement while working as a special ed assistant at River Bend alternative school in north Minneapolis. Its mission—helping kids overcome severe emotional and behavior issues—was a huge challenge. Yet the rich variety of students and staff made her feel at home. The Twin Cities was where she found love and attended her first Pride.

“It’s one week a year you can do whatever the hell you want, be whoever you want to be, and there’s zero judgment,” Fossand says. “Whether you wanna wear your leather, or your bondage, or your banana hammock and your glitter. Zero-judgment zone. The rest of the year, you have to put your little suit and tie on and pretend.”

These days, she frequently finds her former students in the street. As kids they confronted hunger, bedbugs, and trauma. As adults they can be among the homeless who congregate at night in trains and bus shelters, disproportionately robbed and raped, occasionally committing crimes in turn.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a rule allowing federally funded shelters to turn away transgender people. The National Center for Transgender Equity estimates that one in five are at risk of homelessness, increasing the likelihood they will cross paths with police in the barren hours of the night.

“Being gay, I have a little more sensitivity to the issue because I’m a little more aware,” Fossand says. “Whereas the dude who grew up in Bloomington who’s a cake eater with no real-life experience beyond his private college, he could definitely use the information. Because he could be the guy coming over and being like, ‘Well, what the fuck are you, a boy or a girl?’”

She’d hate to be the receiving end of that. So she asks citizens to be part of the solution by calling the police and offering training where knowledge is lacking.

“If we’re going to make things better, then the people who are offended and traumatized and hurt need to come to the table and bring us another way of doing things.”

IV. Power and Pride

Punctuating a summer of violent protests, the St. Anthony police officer who killed school lunch supervisor Philando Castile in a jittery traffic stop was acquitted of all charges one week before Pride 2017.

As the Twin Cities struggled to make sense of the case, the Pride committee requested police officers abstain from the parade.

Janee Harteau, Minneapolis’ first lesbian police chief and a former grand marshal, objected. Cops working security would continue to do so, she pointed out, but LGBT officers and their families would face the brunt of exclusion.

The Pride committee backpedaled. But the following year, police were asked to forego their uniforms after some people complained they were traumatizing.

Medaria Arradondo, who replaced Harteau, acquiesced. He encouraged officers to “seek to first understand, and then be understood. There is still a great deal of pain and harm that has occurred in our community, specifically our LGBTIQ communities of color, which has not been completely heard and addressed.” He suggested police purchase T-shirts with a badge design to wear to the festival.

While Arradondo claimed his decision was informed by the public, elected officials, and police, gay cops felt like they were iced out.

Lt. Kevin Stoll asked other gay and lesbian officers whether administrators sought their perspective. None had contact.

“Those T-shirts that the department bought for the officers to wear became a joke within the police department,” he says. “Enough to where even the straight officers wouldn’t buy them to show their support for the gay officers. And I will say, the rank and file are on board with the gay officers and the right for them to choose.”

Stoll retired last summer as a result. A Minneapolis police spokesman denied interviews with current employees.

Police participation in Pride, especially against the backdrop of Stonewall’s anniversary, is in arduous dispute, says Dallas Drake.

“For the most, part cops have evolved. But what we have right now is a social issue that has emerged, that is complicating the relationship. And the social issue is that a lot of LGBT people are minority people of color, and 11 percent of all [gun] homicides are police shooting suspects and killing them.”

Many shootings are justified, he qualifies. Not all symptoms of a heavily armed society are cops’ fault. Anti-gay activists make an annual pilgrimage to Pride, and it’s the police who prevent them from making a larger impression than they do.

“But there is a serious problem that is apparent to many people who look at it, including many cops,” Drake says. “A statement is being made that there is something wrong with all these shootings, and I think it’s a valid claim.”

The Saloon throws a rager of a block party each Pride. Ever since gay cops started coming out, the owners have invited them to staff it as a show of appreciation. Last year, Moore welcomed his old friend Stoll to ride on the Saloon’s float.

“I know that sometimes we want it one way or the other, but it doesn’t have to be,” Moore says. “It can be both, and I think it really is in this case.”