Officers Kevin Hellmuth (left), Kasey Cash (center), and Dylan Smith (right) are the inaugural members of the Fredericksburg Police Department's LGBTQ Liaison Team. (Photo courtesy FPD).

A ‘force’ against bigotry: Fredericksburg Police Department deploys new LGBTQ+ liaison team

by | Jun 28, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, LGBTQ+, Police and Fire

To serve and protect.

For as long as that motto has been emblazoned on police cars and agency walls in cities across the country, members of the LGBTQ+ community have questioned whether law enforcement was, in fact, there to protect them.

Friday marks the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which erupted after the New York Police Department raided a gay bar in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969. Though the event served as a flashpoint, officers routinely harassed members of the queer community in the years since, often running them out of businesses and towns.

However, after most states decriminalized same-sex relationships amid shifting cultural and societal norms, law enforcement agencies were forced to confront how they interact with the LGBTQ+ community.

Pride Month has placed a renewed focus on that evolving relationship. One key development in recent years is the establishment of specialized liaison units designed to improve communications between the two groups.

The Fredericksburg Police Department, which announced the formation of a three-officer unit earlier this month, is believed to be the first agency in the Fredericksburg area to establish one.

A unique community need

Joseph Lyttle remembers suffering from “culture shock” when he moved to Fredericksburg eight years ago. Pickup trucks waving Confederate flags or bumper stickers indicating the driver carries weapons — and is willing to use them — were common sightings.

“I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t know this community. I really had a lot of flashbacks about the community that I grew up in upon coming here,” said Lyttle, a native of Smithfield. “And not always positive flashbacks.”

Lyttle, who is both gay and Black, wanted to do something to bridge the gap between his communities and law enforcement. Earlier this year, he broached the idea of LGBTQ+ liaisons in a letter to Mayor Kerry Devine, citing his experience with existing units in the Hampton Roads area.

“I thought it absolutely had merit,” Devine wrote in an email to the Free Press. “It wasn’t a hard lift at all — we have been focused on meeting the needs of our diverse community and it was just one more way we could do that.”

Lyttle’s letter ultimately made its way to Fredericksburg Police Department Deputy Chief Betsy Mason, who sent it to the entire department to gauge interest. Two weeks ago, the department announced that three officers had volunteered for the role.

The officers are tasked with fostering positive relationships between law enforcement and the LGBTQ+ community. They provide support and assistance to individuals who may be victims of crime or discrimination, ensuring that their unique needs and concerns are addressed within the agency.

“Literally the point of the program is to improve both relationships and communication,” Lyttle said.

‘Somebody those people can come to’

Officer Kasey Cash moved to Fredericksburg from Manassas a year and a half ago after meeting her current girlfriend while playing for Rappahannock Rugby. When the department was seeking volunteers, she didn’t need much convincing.

“Being part of the [LGBTQ+] community myself, I know there’s a lot of people who are going through a crisis in our community and don’t feel comfortable talking to law enforcement for various reasons,” she said.

Officer Dylan Smith, who hails from upstate New York and joined the department less than a year ago, said he viewed the liaison role as an opportunity to make a mark with the department early in his tenure.

“I saw the letter and I thought about it for maybe like two minutes,” he said. “This is a new program for the department and I’m still new, so I want to get into something and at least get my feet wet.”

It took Officer Kevin Hellmuth slightly longer to warm up to the idea. Hellmuth, the longest-tenured of the group as a three-year FPD veteran, was ultimately swayed by the potential good that could come out of improving community relations.

“When I saw the letter, I was immediately interested, but I was a little hesitant because I didn’t know what exactly I was taking on,” Hellmuth said. “But I was like, ‘Let’s just do it.’”

For all three officers, enthusiasm about the program stems partly from a desire to bridge the gap between their personal and professional identities.

“I can speak for all three of us, I think,” Cash said. “Just being part of the people who have been a victim, we’ve had people say things to us or do things to us because of our sexual orientation, in our community, being somebody that those people can come to is really important.”

A force against hate

Lyttle wants to assure members of the queer community that the FPD team is meant to be helpful and supportive. But, he added, that it is up to the department to make the program effective.

“It’s started,” he said. “We’ve had communication and I hope that that will be an ongoing communication. But it’s really up to both the department and to the community to respond.”

Fredericksburg’s fledgling liaison trio is enrolled in a hate crime awareness course from Out to Protect, a professional development organization that educates law enforcement about homophobia and how hate crimes and domestic violence affect the LGBTQ+ community.

The FPD officers have also reached out to more established liaison teams for guidance, particularly units in cities with larger gay populations. The liaison team will host a self-defense class Friday at the Dorothy Hart Community Center from 6-8 p.m. and have also planned outreach efforts at Saturday’s Pride event in downtown Fredericksburg.

Hellmuth said he hopes community members will approach the team and express concerns about the environment in the city, including whether they feel safe walking downtown at night or if they experience degrading slurs.

“Maybe it is something that doesn’t rise to the level of a crime but some of those actions might end up turning into one and people don’t realize that,” he said.

Similarly, when Lyttle opened Pride Center FXBG in 2022 to better serve the needs of the queer community, safety was his top priority.

“We did receive some backlash, but thankfully the hateful messages came mostly from out of our area,” he said. “But as a leader of this organization, I have to take that very seriously because I have employees and participants I have to think about.”

Hellmuth said he only worked one hate crime during his police career but is now better equipped if more come his way.

“Our overall goal is to just improve law enforcement, and bond with the community so they feel comfortable reaching out to us, and comfortable reporting things,” Hellmuth said. “Maybe someone just needs resources, and we can help with that, too.”

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