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Who's stealing Pride flags in Tacoma?

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Port of Tacoma
Port of Tacoma

As hate crimes against Queer people ravage the nation, like the murder of Reyna Hernandez — a Transgender Latina who owned Reyna's Hair Salon in Renton, previously reported on by the SGN —Tacoma has seen a different trend that's been challenging to tackle: the stealing of Pride flags.

Since the start of the year, the city has seen two "anti-homosexual offenses." Both occurred at single-family residences in late May: one was malicious harassment and the other was larceny theft.

"Last year we had a rush of Pride flag vandalism and theft. There was a 'challenge' on TikTok called 'Capture the Flag,' and [it involved videoing] yourself doing this," Sgt. Kelly Custis, LGBTQIA+ liaison at the Tacoma Police Department (TPD), told the SGN. "When I reached out to the victims, none of them reported any specific reasons they believed this happened to them as an individual. None of them reported any other concerns or similar instances of this happening to them.

Hate crimes against the Tacoma LGBTQ+ community in 2023 totaled 34 offenses, and June saw the biggest spike in crimes, totaling 9. Of all 34, one was assault while another was blackmail. Six of the crimes were malicious harassment; 11 were larceny and theft; and 15 were damage, destruction, and vandalism.

Det. William "Mac" Muse agreed that the theft of Pride flags has been a prevalent crime against the LGBTQ+ community in Tacoma.

"Those who see it as a harmless act don't always understand the implications behind it," he said. "The act sends a hurtful message to the owner of the flag. The act tells the owner [they] are not welcome in the neighborhood. The act tells the owner [they] are not accepted as a part of the community. The owner is left with the fear they will be targeted again should they demonstrate pride in who they are or who they support."

The Mix  

When flags are stolen, Custis forwards a list of those impacted to the city for replacement flags if they are requested, and refers them to the Rainbow Center in Tacoma, a community center and resource hub for the Queer community in South Puget Sound that provides services to around a thousand people annually, if they need additional support. Custis encourages those with Pride flags to place them near a light source and higher up, as routine flag theft prevention tips.

Efforts to collaborate
Part of Custis's work consists of outreach under the Safe Place Initiative, in which businesses can request to be in the program.

"I respond to requests [from] local businesses for these decals and a welcome letter explaining the program and their commitment to providing a safe place to hate crime victims," Custis said.

Custis has been responding to questions and concerns from these businesses for about a year, and has had only a couple reach out. He said no one from the Queer community has contacted him about safety and trends of rising hate crimes in Tacoma.

The TPD has been involved with LGBTQIA+ awareness training through the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission since 2019. The training offers current information about laws, terminology, and the historical context regarding the relationship between the Queer community and law enforcement.

The department has partnered with the Rainbow Center of Tacoma, whose members previously provided in-person shift training to officers about the proper uses of pronouns, and information about gender identity and expression.

"I believe continued conversations and interaction between TPD and the community will only strengthen the way we create a safe environment as well as enforce and investigate crimes in a fair and impartial manner," Custis said.

Within the next year, Custis said, he hopes to engage with other law enforcement agencies and their LGBTQ+ liaisons on additional training and ways to better serve the community.

"Law enforcement has come a long way since the days of the [Stonewall] riots," Muse said. "The manner in which communities are policed has evolved over time and changed for the better."