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More openly gay Minneapolis police officers means a change in culture

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Minneapolis police chief
Janee Harteau, center, hugs her partner Officer Holly Keegel, back to camera, after Harteau was sworn in Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 as Minneapolis' new police chief.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

When newly-appointed chief Janee Harteau took the oath of office last week, her longtime partner, Sgt. Holly Keegel, stood just feet away.  

Harteau had been reluctant to talk publicly about her personal life, but later thanked Keegel for her support and called Keegel her "better half."

U.S. Marshal Sharon Lubinski also applauded Harteau's ascent to chief in the City Hall rotunda that day. She's a former Minneapolis police officer who once served as assistant chief under Tim Dolan. Lubinski joined the force with Harteau in 1987 and is regarded by many as the trailblazer who made Harteau's promotion possible. In 1993, Sgt. Lubinski came out as the first openly gay Minneapolis police officer. She made her announcement in an article in a Sunday edition of the Star Tribune.

"I just felt like, if I came forward that there might be a change in how people view gays and lesbians in both Minneapolis police as well as in the community," Lubinski said. "I think it helped making some changes along those lines."

Lubinski said coming out helped start shift attitudes among her fellow officers. She said police officers as a group are a little more socially conservative than the general population. But Lubinski said she finds that officers are willing to judge their fellow officers by their job performance, not their sexual orientation.

"If you're pulling your weight; if you're doing your job, a lot of the cops are just extremely supportive," Lubinski said.

Lubinski opened the closet door far enough for officers like Lt. Rob Allen to walk through. Allen became one of the first openly gay male police officers on the force when he came out in 1994, after he'd been on the job for several years. He joined the force in the late 1980s, a time when Allen said Minneapolis police officers often raided adult bookstores, places where closeted gay men often met for sex. And officers sometimes took pride in exposing them, Allen said.

Minneapolis Police Lt. Rob Allen
Minneapolis Police Lt. Rob Allen said police officers' attitudes about gays and lesbians has changed over the years and that the increasing number of openly gay officers, especially those in leadership positions, has helped accelerate the evolution of attitudes inside the department.
MPR photo/Bfandt Williams

"They used to brag about the fact that men who were arrested in those raids on adult bookstores had committed suicide," Allen said. "That seemed to be one of the goals they tried to achieve with these arrests."

As with the broader society, Allen said police officers' attitudes about gays and lesbians has changed over the years. He said the increasing number of openly gay officers, especially those in leadership positions, has helped accelerate the evolution of attitudes inside the department.

The MPD does not officially tally the number of gay and lesbian officers.  But Allen estimates about three-dozen of the department's 850 officers are gay men and women. Allen said under former chief Dolan, gays and lesbians made up more than half of the deputy chiefs and precinct inspectors.

"At the academy, we used to teach a class in working with the GLBT community," Allen said. "And one of the comments was, 'you know, if you have a problem with it — working with the GLBT community — you are going to have a problem, because you will be working for GLBT people.' And now everyone in the department is."

Harteau is making changes in the department's leadership. She recently removed Allen as deputy chief of investigations and reassigned him to the 5th precinct as a lieutenant.

The MPD is not the only law enforcement agency that is changing with the times. 

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think-tank based in Washington, DC. He said police chiefs around the country increasingly see the need to recruit and retain gay police officers.

"It's somewhat similar to, on the race issue where departments recognize that they have to reflect the communities that they serve," Wexler said.

Despite the strides made by gay and lesbian officers in Minneapolis, Allen said he knows closeted gay officers in other departments in Minnesota who are afraid to come out. He understands how tough it is, but said the only way the culture will improve is for those officers to come out and reach out for help if they need it.