How do the police interact with LGBTI youth in their work?

Linnea West Heta Hölttä Julkaisupäivä 10.6.2021 15.00 Blogit

The police, like all authorities, also encounter LGBTI youth in their work. 

LGBTI youth has in recent years become a common term to refer to young people who belong to sexual or gender minorities. These minorities can be, for example, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transgender or intersex.

LGBTI youth can come into contact with the police for many reasons in the same way as other young people. Studies have shown them to have more experiences of violence than their peers, both at school and at home. There are issues associated with interacting with LGBTI youth that it is also important for the police to be aware of.

Linnea West of Ostrobothnia Police Department, together with Seta's youth work expert, highlights three issues in particular that it is important to be aware of regarding LGBTI youth. The police do not want offences against LGBTI youth and other LGBTI people to remain hidden but seek good interaction between the police and LGBTI youth. 

A prerequisite for good interaction with the authorities is an ability to treat the young person as an individual and not just as a representative of a group. It's also important to recognise specific issues and vulnerabilities of sexual and gender minorities.

Don't assume

One of the most important steps towards better interaction with LGBTI youth is to avoid unnecessary assumptions. Sexual and gender minorities are constantly subjected to various assumptions. Assumptions are more harmful than you might think, even if they do arise without any intention of discrimination and sincere thoughtlessness.

In the context of a criminal investigation, communication between the person conducting the questioning and the person being questioned is very important. If the person being questioned is unwilling or unable to tell the details about the matter under investigation to the police officer conducting the questioning, the information to contribute to the criminal investigation will be very limited. It is important to avoid assumptions and labelling people. Instead, the young person being questioned must be allowed to share their experiences and related matters in their own words.

For example, there should be no assumptions or attempts to guess the gender of either the young person themselves or other parties involved by, for example, their name or appearance. Nor should sexual orientation be presumed or determined on the basis of sexual behaviour or any other factor known to the person conducting the questioning. In order to build confidential communication, it is important to use the name the young person themself uses and also to respect the young person's self-determination otherwise.

The motive for the crime is a critical element, especially when investigating hate crimes. If the person conducting the questioning were to assume sexual orientation when talking to the person being questioned, the latter would first have to correct the assumptions before being able to discuss the matter itself. Correcting assumptions is often painful and embarrassing and therefore may not be done. In which case, the true nature of things could be completely obscured from the police. Training related to sexual and gender minorities will improve police performance when conducting questioning.

Dare young people turn to the police?

Another thing to consider relates to the threshold for LGBTI people to report to the police. The LGBTI survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) asked LGBTI people why they had not reported the last incident of hate-motivated physical or sexual attack to the police). The majority of those who experienced such violence had not reported the cases to anyone, and only 16% had reported the matter to the police. 

Of the respondents in the 18–24 age group living in Finland, 14% said that they did not report because they did not trust the police, whereas 17% feared the police would react homo- or transphobically. However, the most common reasons for not reporting were that the police were not thought to be doing or could do anything about it, that the case was not considered serious enough and that the matter involved shame, hence a reluctance to tell others about it.

In Finland, trust in the police is relatively high on a European scale, but there is always room for improvement. Underlying the general high level of trust is a fear of discrimination against minorities.  

Experience of good interaction with the authorities can be increased and the fear of discrimination reduced by, for example, taking minorities into account in forms, communications and other areas of activity. Education increases police awareness of minorities. As good interaction becomes more widespread, both the quality of criminal investigation and mutual trust will be strengthened.

When a young person's family is involved

Thirdly, it is important to take into account factors related to the family of a child or young person. When a minor is involved in a criminal investigation, the parents are usually involved in one way or another. In which case, there may also be situations where, for example, during the criminal investigation, the sexual orientation of a child is revealed to the parent for the first time. 

Many things should be considered in these situations. Where it's necessary to reveal matters related to a young person's identity to the family in connection with a criminal investigation, the young person must be given an opportunity to prepare for this. They must be able to influence how the parents get to know about it. "Being forced out the closet" can be a very traumatic experience for a young person and in order to avoid it, the young person should be listened to and be sensitive.

For a parent, knowing about their child's identity may also be surprising or even unwelcome. This should also be taken into account and consideration should be given to whether the family should be referred to support provision or whether a guardian should be sought for the child. In a criminal investigation, a guardian must be sought whenever a parent cannot oversee the child's best interests impartially. If a parent does not accept their child's sexual orientation or gender identity, it may be difficult for them to act in the best interests of the child in all matters related to the criminal procedure.

The family can receive support from, for example, the Family Relationship Centre (Perhesuhdekeskus) or the Gender Diversity & Intersex Centre of Expertise for the confusion caused by the child's identity. In acute crisis situations, the local emergency social services is always the right address. 

On the other hand, there may be situations where it is not safe for a young person to stay at home due to the threat of mental and/or physical violence. In which case, it is important to ensure that the young person is aware of places where they can get help, such as local shelters or shelters for young people. If a young person needs support in reflecting on their own identity, they can get help from the Sinuiksi service, for example.

Links to information and support for young people and families

The police have overhauled their equality and non-discrimination plan. The police are also continuously improving expertise in implementing non-discrimination in practice. 

Linnea West
Senior Detective Constable, Ostrobothnia Police Department

Heta Hölttä
Youth Policy and Advocacy Expert, Seta ry