Sheriff demotes major who advocated for LGBT issues

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A top commander at the Harris County Sheriff's Office who helped put in place groundbreaking LGBT policies for staff and inmates was demoted by Sheriff Ron Hickman, though the new sheriff says that doesn't mean the policies are in jeopardy. 

Hickman demoted several top commanders after he was appointed sheriff last month as he assembled his own leadership team. Among them was Major Debra Schmidt, a 30-plus year law enforcement veteran demoted to captain. She worked closely with LGBT activists under Sheriff Adrian Garcia to put in place sweeping new policies protecting LGBT inmates and sheriff's office employees. 

Her demotion has some LGBT activists concerned that Hickman may chip away at Garcia's LGBT-inclusive accomplishments.

“We did have the nation's leading policy on LGBT inmates,” says LGBT consultant Lou Weaver, who worked with Schmidt (top photo) and other gay Houston activists to craft the policies at the sheriff's office. “For the incoming sheriff to go back on that would be huge. That would be a real step backwards. I am hopeful that he will see that and stay the course to make sure everyone is safe.”

But the policies concerning LGBT inmates won't change under Hickman's leadership, according to a sheriff's office spokesperson. 

“Those policies protect the rights of individuals in the custody of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and will continue to do so,” says Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff's office spokesperson. “Sheriff Hickman remains steadfast on preserving the rights of individuals in his custody, in his employment, and in the community to which he is sworn to protect.”

The policies helped the sheriff's office meet new federal guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003 but took years to be put into practice across the country. Garcia made the Harris County jail – one of the largest in the nation – the first in Texas to adopt the policies.   

The 11-page document, implemented in late 2013, states that “discrimination or harassment of any kind based on sexual orientation or gender identity is strictly prohibited,” and outlines how LGBT inmates will be searched, booked and housed, according to the Associated Press. The policy also covers intersex inmates. A second, three-page policy extended the agency's non-discrimination policy for employees to cover sexual orientation and gender identity, believed to be a first among stand-alone law enforcement agencies in the country.

As the policies were being drafted, Weaver says Garcia – who resigned last month to run for mayor – and others at the sheriff's office met with a large group of LGBT activists “to make sure the policies are as inclusive as possible.”

'Diversity for diversity's sake not effective'


During his first week in office, Hickman told the Houston Chronicle that he wants his office to represent the diversity found in Harris County.

“We absolutely want to make sure we represent all sectors of the community,” he says. “But diversity for diversity's sake is not always effective. The staff that I will be assembling will be people with a specific experience with a specific purpose.”

But that won't mean Hickman (second photo) will appoint an LGBT employee to his command staff.

“Sheriff Hickman strongly believes in respect and dignity for all members of the community. Neither race, gender, religion nor sexual orientation are determining factors in command decisions. Rather the command staff of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office will be appointed based on experience and expertise,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan says that despite Schmidt's demotion, she will continue to provide leadership at the agency.

“Capt. Schmidt’s reassignment will be commensurate with her experience, passion and expertise. Keeping experienced professionals such as Debra Schmidt in leadership roles is an important step to maintain a continuity of standards amongst the ranks of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office,” Sullivan says.

Ray Hill, a longtime LGBT activist and self-described citizen provocateur, says that without someone like Schmidt in the command staff, there's little administrative heft advocating for LGBT issues.

“Transgender inmates create enormous classification problems in jails,” Hill said. “Schmidt was instrumental in the implementation of that policy and including transgender in it.”

But Hill says he's more concerned with how Hickman addresses mental health issues of inmates. 

“It's nice to have good policies in there about gays and lesbians and how they are treated and that's what we have structurally under Major Schmidt. But the most important issue in operating the Harris County Jail is what do you do about mental health,” Hill says.

'Committed to open dialogue'


Garcia promoted Schmidt to major in July 2013 as he named three women to top management positions. Major is the highest rank among the department's more than 4,000 employees, other than sheriff and chief deputy. Schmidt declined to comment for this story.

In a January 2014 interview with the Associated Press (watch below), Schmidt discusses the new LGBT policies and how the agency offered sensitivity training to employees to smooth its implementation.

“One of the critical pieces of this policy is re-educating our own employees to help them work through their fears and their misconceptions and in some cases, I'm sure, their prejudices,” Schmidt says.

In a November 2013 interview, Schmidt tells KTRH that the policies help the sheriff's office “do the right thing and build a community of respect within our jail system.” Schmidt also discussed the policies at Creating Change last year. The annual event drew thousands of LGBT activists to Houston in 2014.

Weaver (third photo) also chaired an LGBT advisory committee that Garcia created to serve as a place to air concerns between the public and the sheriff's office. Garcia also put in place an LGBT safe zone program and identified people within the agency to serve as LGBT liaisons, says Weaver, who also teaches courses for sheriff's office staff about LGBT issues and the Prison Rape Elimination Act policies.

Hickman has not decided on the fate of the LGBT advisory committee, Sullivan says.

“Sheriff Hickman remains committed to open dialogue with any concerned citizens of Harris County. It is premature to say what liaison groups will or will not continue to convene,” Sullivan says.

The LGBT policies and outreach were part of a broader, gay-inclusive approach by Garcia. In 2014, he marched in the Houston Pride parade and joined several deputies in marking the agency's first-ever appearance at the event. Hickman has no plans to march in this year's parade, set for June 27, but encourages deputies to take part in an unofficial capacity, Sullivan says.

Garcia also attended other LGBT events while sheriff, including the HRC Houston gala dinner in May and the FACE Awards in December. Garcia was also among more than 200 law enforcement officers and first responders who signed on to a brief earlier this year calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage. Hickman, then the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable, did not sign the brief.

“We are just waiting to see. Any new sheriff might make changes and bring in their changes. I am hoping the policies remain,” Weaver says.



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