THE BLOG
10/21/2014 07:45 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Botched Robbery or Hate Crime?

Over the past two weeks, community members in Los Angeles have held vigils to mourn the death and celebrate the life of Aniya "Ray Ray" Parker. The murder of Ms. Parker marked the eighth homicide of a transgender woman of color reported in the U.S. since June. She was shot in the head and killed as she was fleeing from three men who had confronted her on a sidewalk in Hollywood.

Los Angeles Police Department officers immediately told news reporters at the scene that this tragic incident appeared to be a "robbery gone bad." Within hours, local media ran headlines of a transgender person killed in a "botched robbery." The police, they reported, were not considering this a hate crime but simply a random "robbery gone sideways." These accounts were echoed in national reports, even from LGBT news sources.

Local community members and activists responded with an adamantly different perspective on what happened: This was not a robbery, in fact, they left the purse behind," one resident told reporters. "This is a cold-blooded hate crime and this type of violence needs to end."

A surveillance video of the incident showed the assailants engaging in a verbal exchange with Ms. Parker and then physically assaulting her. Ms. Parker fled and was shot as she ran across the street, not during a struggle for her belongings. When the video was shown on local television news, it strengthened community members' resolve that this was not a "botched robbery" but a hate crime against an individual from a marginalized and too-often-targeted community.

According to the newest hate-crime statistics released last week by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, the number of incidents against transgender people jumped by nearly 46 percent last year, and the majority of the victims were people of color. Just as staggering, the report revealed that 100 percent of those crimes were violent.

The tragic murder of Ms. Parker and the frenzy of news reports in the aftermath have elevated concerns around the investigation and handling of violent crimes against trans people and illuminated misconceptions regarding the role of law enforcement.

During the investigation, it is not law enforcement's role to decide whether or not this murder was a hate crime. That is largely up to the district attorney when suspects are arrested and charged. As stated by LAPD Detective Scott Masterson in response to another recent LGBT homicide, "The hate crime aspect doesn't come into play until we're meeting with the district attorney. A hate crime is determined by the evidence. It's what we can prove, not what we think."

Whether a crime is deemed a "hate crime" is based on the specific motivation of the perpetrators. In California, any crime may be deemed a "hate crime" if it was "committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more ... actual or perceived characteristics of the victim."

While it is not law enforcement's role to conclude whether or not this was a hate crime, it is part of their job to thoroughly investigate crimes. An informed perspective around the victim's identity and the broader context of the crime should act as guidance. This recent homicide involved a victim who was part of a vulnerable population disproportionately experiencing hate violence: African-American trans women.

It appears that an understanding of Ms. Parker's identity within the broader context of violence fueled by transphobia, homophobia, sexism and racism in our society has been missed. When asked by a reporter at the vigil for Ms. Parker about whether this was a hate crime, an LAPD captain remarked, "Just because of a person's lifestyle and they're a victim of a violent crime, it doesn't necessarily make it a hate crime." Detectives repeatedly expressed that the trans community should not be concerned about their safety in the wake of this murder. Unfortunately, these statements convey a lack of awareness about the trans community and the threats of violence we live with every day.

Being transgender is not merely a "lifestyle." An acknowledgement of our identities and experiences is a prerequisite for recognizing hate crimes and investigating how and why hate-motivated violence happens. Moreover, in cases such as this one, law enforcement have an opportunity to build trust with a historically marginalized population, which ultimately will improve investigations and community safety.

Ms. Parker may have indeed been targeted for a robbery, as the investigators have indicated, but why was she chosen as a victim? And why did the violence escalate to such brutality? While I am not advocating that we jump to the conclusion that the murder of Ms. Parker was a hate crime, the possibility that her transgender identity or her race, or both, were motivating factors should be a critical component of the investigation.

The current investigative premise seems to be: A crime is not a hate crime until proven otherwise. When the victim is a trans woman of color, this approach flies in the face of our current reality. I propose a different approach for law enforcement: A violent crime against a transgender person should be investigated under the presumption that it was motivated by anti-transgender bias and hatred, until the evidence shows otherwise.

Critical consideration of a crime's context should guide the investigative process and how law enforcement agencies think about and talk about incidents such as this one. With video footage clearly showing that perpetrators engaged in a violent interaction with a trans woman and shot her as she was running away, this investigation should be guided by the real possibility that Aniya Parker's murder was, indeed, a hate crime.