In response to reports that transgender woman Layleen Polcano was found dead in a Rikers Island jail cell, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complained that such prisoners are too often misgendered upon their arrest.
“I have met w/ trans constituents who were put in Rikers,” the New York democrat tweeted. “These women told me about being misgendered upon arrest (even post-surgery), &forced in cells w/ men, putting them in extreme risk. It’s hard to get treatments, too. Layleen’s family deserves to know what happened to her.”
I'm also disappointed by news coverage that continues to misgender and dead name trans people who have died. A major outlet needlessly published her dead name last night and had to be corrected. I really wish folks in media would educate themselves on these issues. Not hard.
— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) June 10, 2019
Polcano, 27, was arrested in April for allegedly assaulting a cab driver and possession of a controlled substance, WABC reported. She was being held at Riker’s Rose M. Singer Center, a segment of the facility which has historically housed female inmates and recently began to admit transgender women. Her body was found on Saturday.
City Department of Corrections officials have yet to determine the cause of death but don’t believe violence was a factor.
“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family,” Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann told NBC News. “We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority.”
Polcano’s family, and the LGBT community, are outraged.
“The city failed to protect Layleen, and now it’s trying to sweep her death under the rug. We will not allow it,” the family said in a statement that their attorney, David B. Shanies, shared to Twitter on Sunday.
Activists have declared Polcano’s death evidence of the penal system’s failure to adequately protect transgender people.
“NYC’s Department of Corrections established a trans housing unit to reduce violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people at Rikers. But ‘better’ incarceration is still incarceration, and trans people are deeply unsafe in this system,” reads the description of an event organized by the New York City Anti-Violence Project, in honor of Polcano.
“This tragic loss of yet another member of the trans community comes just days after the start of Pride season. There is no Pride to be had while trans folks continue to face an epidemic of fatal violence.”
The Layleen Polcano case is part of the broader hate crime debate
In 2018, the FBI reported a 17 percent rise in hate crimes across the United States. Some 16 percent of those incidents involved people who were targeted because of their sexual orientation. Activists have pointed to the figures, as well as to cases like Polcano’s, as evidence that society still has a long way to go in acknowledging the rights of LGBT persons.
But some skeptics urge against reading too deeply into conclusions drawn from hate crime data given the reporting methodology used to collect such information.
Reason’s Robby Soave argued in November that anyone talking about “hate crime increases” should keep one “critical detail” in mind: “The overall number of law enforcement agencies reporting hate crime data also increased greatly—approximately 1,000 additional agencies contributed figures in 2017 than in 2016.”
According to Soave, this means that “it’s not obviously the case that hate crimes are more prevalent in 2017.”
“Maybe the government just did a better job of counting them,” Soave wrote. He also noted that if “every agency reporting data for the first time in 2017 reported just one hate crime, this would account for the entire 17 percent increase.”
Kmele Foster, another libertarian commentator, also took issue with how hate crimes are classified during an appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” in February.
“When we talk about hate crimes, we talk about there being 15 percent increases in these things–a hate crime is not the sort of thing that we can simply look at and say ‘It is absolutely a hate crime.’ There’s some supposition about that,” Foster said. “There is a great ambiguity about what makes something a hate crime. There are subjective determinations there.”