Jamel Young and his girlfriend were exhausted after the long drive from Atlanta to the Bronx. It was just past midnight on March 29, 2019, when they rolled up to his friend’s apartment where they were staying, and his girlfriend got out with their bags to wait in the building while he parked the car.
Raised in New York City, Young now lived down South but visited family and friends often. That trip had already gotten off to a bad start — his car was towed earlier that day, and Young had spent time and money getting it back.
That night, knowing how difficult parking on the streets of New York City can be, Young circled a few blocks over and over to find an open space.
Then an unmarked NYPD car stopped him.
Young said he didn’t panic. He was a 33-year-old US citizen and an Army veteran, but he also knew that as a Black transgender man in the Bronx dealing with the police late at night, “the only thing on my mind is to comply,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“I’m feeling like, OK, I didn’t do anything wrong, whatever this is I’ll take care of it,” Young said.
But what began ostensibly as a traffic stop became an hourslong ordeal with the city’s criminal justice system that Young said traumatized and dehumanized him. From the moment he informed the arresting officers that he was transgender, Young was misgendered, assaulted, and sexualized by officers who dismissed his fear for his safety and failed to provide for his most basic needs, according to a lawsuit he filed against the NYPD and the city’s Department of Correction last month.
BuzzFeed News spoke to Young and his lawyer, and reviewed public documents relating to his arrest and subsequent charges. The below timeline of alleged events is taken from the lawsuit filed in the Bronx County Supreme Court on June 11, and includes accounts from Young’s interview with BuzzFeed News.
When the police pulled him over, the officers told him it was because he didn’t have a license plate light, and asked what he regarded as “basic traffic stop questions.” He told BuzzFeed News he was calm, compliant, and honest in answering them.
Then they asked if he had a weapon on him. Young did — he had a registered gun from Georgia, but told the officers he wasn’t sure if the gun was in one of the bags he dropped off with his girlfriend, or in the car with him.
Young told BuzzFeed News he did not know that a license to carry was required for a weapon registered in a different state, and that the license was to carry a gun on your body, not in your car or at home. He had also told the NYPD that night that he had a purchase receipt from when he bought the gun in Georgia and thought it was a permit, according to criminal record documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
New York City has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and hundreds of tourists — many of whom were apparently unaware of the city’s gun laws — bring firearms on their trips and have been arrested by police.
When Young told police he had a gun, four or five cops were already surrounding his car and the officers told him he was being placed under arrest. Already nervous and “halfway horrified,” Young said his anxiety and PTSD started to kick in.
“I didn’t know or think that I was doing anything wrong, I thought I was doing everything completely, 100% right,” he said.
As soon as the police started pulling him out of the car, Young panicked and told the officers that he’s a transgender man — the first of many times that night that Young would be informing authorities about his identity — hoping they would treat him respectfully. Both during the arrest and later at the precinct, Young told BuzzFeed News that police officers grabbed his chest and crotch like they were “trying to confirm” that he’s trans. He said he was sexually assaulted again by an officer who was transporting him to central booking.
Young also overheard officers joking among themselves about his identity, and according to the lawsuit, referred to him at various points throughout the night as “he, she, her, him, miss and sir.”
“I felt worthless,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I felt like all those triggers that trans people try so hard to manage throughout the transition, all of it just exploded.”
At the precinct, Young was placed in a cell that had a single open toilet with a number of cis men, an experience he recalled could have been “really bad” had the men known he was transgender. When he tried to discreetly ask an officer to use a different restroom, having to disclose his identity yet again, the officer proceeded to “react with annoyance, and to loudly request the assistance of another officer,” the lawsuit said.
“It’s totally unsafe,” Young told BuzzFeed News. “Men get raped in jail. I know for sure if they knew the parts I had I would be getting raped.”
The NYPD did not initially respond to multiple requests for comment. After publication a spokesperson for the department issued a statement saying the, "NYPD recognizes and supports the rights and dignity of transgender and gender non-conforming persons. We endeavor to treat all individuals with the utmost respect. This lawsuit will be reviewed in the normal course when service is effected."
Young was arraigned that night and taken to Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center — a barge known as “the boat.” According to the lawsuit, when he asked his legal aid attorney how corrections officers would ensure his safety, the attorney told Young to tell officers he was a woman “because they don’t know what to do with you.”
The officers handcuffed Young to another male inmate in a holding cell on “the boat.”
“During that entire period [Young] feared for his life and safety because he did not know whether the other prisoners were aware of his transgender identity,” the lawsuit said.
At “the boat,” Young asked an officer for a pencil and paper to write a note informing authorities of his identity.
“I am transgender, it is unsafe for me to be here,” he told BuzzFeed News he wrote on the paper. “Can someone please do something about this because I feel like my life is not safe here.”
Young was then partially strip-searched, the lawsuit said, then placed in a cell directly across from other inmates. A trustee, an inmate tasked with assisting corrections officers, went up to Young to grill him about why he was alone in a cell, drawing unwanted attention to him.
“Even being in separate cells, I still felt afraid and at risk,” Young said. “I know people are wondering what’s going on.”
When he was taken for a medical exam and told the nurse he was transgender, she made comments about his appearance and gender, and “the fact that she considered him sexy and attractive,” according to the lawsuit.
Young told BuzzFeed News that the nurse “immediately went to sexualizing me” after he told her about his identity. She told him he was “sexy like a man” and that he had a “nose like a man” while he was in handcuffs, he said.
“I felt so disrespected, so dehumanized again,” Young said. “This is the same person that sexualized me and now I have to give her access to me and my body. I just felt like a ragdoll in that system. I felt like anybody could just pull me around and throw me around and treat me how they wanted to, and it’d be OK.”
Jeanette Merrill, the Correctional Health Services director of communications and intergovernmental affairs, told BuzzFeed News they “cannot comment on this specific case” but its policy is to “treat every patient with dignity, respect, and compassion and to ensure every provider receives the proper training and education to deliver this high-quality care.”
After learning of his identity, Young said the officers had planned to send him to Rikers Island, a notoriously abusive and deadly jail system that has a unit in the female facility for transgender, intersex, and nonbinary people.
A spokesperson for New York City’s DOC told BuzzFeed News that there are significantly fewer trans men than trans women in its system, and trans men can and have in the past been housed in the unit, “though the majority prefer to remain in general population in the female facility.” The spokesperson did not respond to requests for clarification.
When reached for comment on the lawsuit, Nicholas Paolucci, the New York City Law Department’s director of public affairs, told BuzzFeed News, “If true, these allegations are troubling. We will carefully review the case and not comment before all the facts are in.”
Young posted bail the next day. He was charged with two counts of criminal possession of a weapon, criminal possession of a firearm, and possession of ammunition, according to court documents.
It wasn’t until after he was released, Young said, that he found out the danger he could have faced had he been sent to Rikers. He pointed to what happened to Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a transgender woman who died of an epileptic seizure while being held in solitary confinement in Rikers Island. Polanco was at Rikers for nearly two months because she could not afford to post her $500 bail. She died on June 7, 2019, just days after Young’s ordeal.
In June this year, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark declined to file criminal charges in Polanco's death. Her family has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and DOC employees.
What Young said happened to him in custody is “unfortunately horrifically common at every point in the [criminal justice] process” for transgender people, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the deputy executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told BuzzFeed News.
Jails and prisons are often overcrowded and staff typically are ill-equipped in accommodating transgender people’s needs, Heng-Lehtinen said.
According to the claims in Young’s lawsuit, he was “being dismissed by the very government employees who are supposed to protect him,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “These are people who are paid by our taxpayer dollars who are treating someone like this.”
According to the NCTE’s US Transgender Survey from 2016, the most recent one available, transgender people who have been incarcerated reported being sexually assaulted by both officers and other inmates at high rates. They were five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by staff, and nearly 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by other inmates.
Mariah Lopez, the executive director of Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform, who said she was abused by police in a 2006 encounter due to her identity as a transgender woman, told BuzzFeed News that while law enforcement policies toward transgender inmates have improved, those policies are “superficial.”
“In terms of real practical change when it really matters, the answer that is we haven’t seen any [improvement],” Lopez said.
How authorities allegedly treated Young shows “an utter disregard for the value and integrity of our lives,” she said.
“The gold standard is that a police department should have a clear, specific, articulated policy that everyone’s trained on that says if you are arresting someone who is transgender, you should interview them to determine where they are most safe,” Heng-Lehtinen said, “and make an individual determination of where they should go.”
A 2019 NCTE report on the NYPD’s policies states that though the department has some guidelines for handling trans individuals in its custody, those policies are open-ended enough — including regarding search procedures and bathroom use, and in prohibiting housing a transgender person based on surgical status or gender marker on their ID documents — that it can be interpreted in various ways.
The department’s policies on transgender people are left “as a gray area,” Heng-Lehtinen said, “which is really dangerous.”
Young’s attorney David Blum said that if the officers who dealt with Young that night had a clearer policy to follow and the training that went with it, “we wouldn’t be facing the issue of suing the NYPD and the Department of Correction to assure someone’s safety — after the damage has been done,”
The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit, or to questions on the policies that its officers must adhere to when dealing with transgender individuals.
According to the NCTE, the absence of clear guidance toward transgender inmates isn’t limited to the NYPD. Of the 25 largest police departments in the country, a majority have no specific policies on how officers are required to treat transgender people in their custody on a range of issues, according to another 2019 NCTE report.
At its core, the criminal justice system exists to preserve public safety, Heng-Lehtinen pointed out.
“Safety is supposed to be the guiding light for everything that a police department does. That should extend to the people who the police department arrests as well,” he said, particularly because the system that incarcerates a person is responsible for them.
Young said he’s suing the NYPD and the DOC because even though he does not know what a safe and just system looks like, he wants to see changes that will ensure the safety of transgender people in custody.
“That ain’t my job to figure that out for them. That’s their jobs, that’s their systems to figure out,” he said. “I’m not asking for anything special. I don’t think I need to get coffee three times a day. I literally just need my safety.”