PHILADELPHIA -- A few antagonistic words can go a long way toward deepening the divide between transgender Philadelphians and the people sworn to protect them.
It's the little things that tend to sting: a police officer who uses "sir" instead of "ma'am," or declines to use one's chosen name.
"It's enough to put fear into you or make you feel uncomfortable or uninvited," said Samantha Dato, director of Philadelphia's Trans Health Conference, which promotes health in "mind, body, spirit, and community" for the city's transgender residents.
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey says he hopes to alleviate that fear in an unprecedented policy change announced in late December. The policy, Directive 152, is the first in the department's history that addresses how officers interact with the transgender community. The directive also addresses thornier issues: namely, housing, transportation, and processing for transgender inmates.
It is also one of the few guidelines in the country to offer direction on how to speak to reporters about trans offenders or trans victims of crime. In cases where a transgender victim has died, the policy states officers should "use pronouns and titles of respect appropriate to the individual's gender identity as expressed by the individual."
Ramsey acknowledges that his department was behind the times when it came to transgender policy.
"We were vulnerable because we had no real policy in place," he said.
Several other major police departments, including in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, have adopted similar policies in the last few years.
"For officers to start addressing people with their proper pronoun, that to me is totally amazing," Dato said. "I do want to see them come through with this."
It was a request activists had been making for some time, said Fran Price, director of Philly Pride and a member of the LGBT-police liaison committee.
"Finally, somebody heard what we were saying," Price said. "You go and complain and complain and you go through all these different officers, and then, finally, somebody listened."
The directive also encourages officers to place transgender arrestees in separate holding cells from the general population if possible.
"Some people see isolation as a negative," said Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, the department's LGBT liaison. But transgender inmates are at risk for violence and sexual assault while locked up, he said.
Reaction from the rank and file to the new policies has been positive, he added.
Though local activists say they are encouraged by the changes, they are quick to add that work remains to be done in a community where violence and discrimination are commonplace. They want to see officers demonstrate on the streets what they have been told to do on paper.
For some, experiences with police have "been very belittling, very uncomfortable," Dato said. "You have some police that don't bother and you have other ones that are really intentionally disrespectful and mean."
Transgender victims of violence were often referred to by their birth names in media reports, local activists said. They were described as "cross-dressers" or "men dressed as women."
The July 2013 killing of Diamond Williams, a transgender woman, hit the LGBT community hard, said Nayimah Sanchez, codirector of the Trans Health Information Project.According to police, Charles Sargent hired Williams for sex but killed her in a rage when he learned she was transgender, dismembered her body, and dumped it in a field. Sargent was arrested in late July and is still awaiting a preliminary hearing.
"When Diamond was murdered, they said, 'It was this cross-dressing prostitute,' " Sanchez said.
Initial news articles about Williams' death described her as "a male prostitute dressed as a woman."
"Society pretty much treats us like we deserve these things that happen to us," Sanchez said.
Although hopeful about the new directive, she remains wary.