A transgender woman in upstate New York is suing the local police and sheriff’s office for allegedly mocking her gender identity, using excessive force, and sexually assaulting her during a strip search at the Jefferson County jail.
DeAnna LeTray, 54, says Watertown cops hauled her to the police station after responding to a domestic dispute in September 2017, and that corrections officers harassed and abused her throughout the night. One officer allegedly called her “a man dressed like a woman” and warned, “We can’t let you walk the streets looking and dressed like that,” before arresting her for criminal mischief in the fourth degree.
“The police were called for help. Instead, I was dehumanized. I never want anyone to go through the abuse I experienced from people that were supposed to protect me,” LeTray said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast.
“I was thrown in jail simply because of who I am,” LeTray added. “The Watertown Police Department made fun of my gender identity and misgendered me every step of the way. The police forced me to remove my hair, which I consider a part of myself. When I got to the Jefferson County Jail, I was harassed, mocked, and worse: jail staff strip searched and sexually assaulted me. No person’s gender identity gives police and jail staff the authority to abuse. Watertown law enforcement and Jefferson County Jail staff must be held accountable for their actions.”
On Monday, LeTray filed a first amended complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Her lawsuit alleges “degrading and humiliating sexual abuse and discrimination” by different law enforcement officers, including Watertown cop George Cummings, who allegedly slammed her to the ground and ripped her hairpiece—and some of her natural hair—from her head.
Messages left for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and a lawyer for Watertown police weren’t returned by press time. Watertown Police Chief Charles Donoghue, who is a defendant in the suit, confirmed his agency arrested LeTray but declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
LeTray’s disturbing encounter with police began on a Thursday night, after she approached her ex-wife’s landlord (who happened to be her daughter’s fiancé) about lowering the ex-wife’s rent. LeTray and her former spouse couldn’t afford both the mortgage on their home and the rent on the ex-wife’s apartment.
During this conversation, the landlord allegedly made derogatory comments about LeTray and pointed a shotgun at her. LeTray accidentally broke a windowpane of the landlord’s home and yelled for help after the landlord chased her, the lawsuit says.
Officer Cummings arrived to the scene, and LeTray explained she was transgender, and provided her current name and former legal name. She claims Cummings called her “a guy” and “a man dressed like a woman,” while another officer, Samuel White, allegedly asked her questions about her sexuality and genitalia.
The cops arrested LeTray for criminal mischief and also charged her with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree, a misdemeanor, after finding a small amount of MDMA in her purse. When LeTray asked why she was being arrested, Cummings allegedly replied, “You have serious mental problems. You are a guy dressed like a woman.” (These charges were later reduced to violations, the complaint states.)
At the police station, Officer Virginia Kelly pointed to LeTray's hair and demanded she remove it for a booking photo, despite the department not requiring cisgender women to discard their hairpieces. “They targeted Ms. LeTray with this requirement because of her transgender status—because, as Officers Cummings stated, they considered her ‘a man dressed as a woman,’” the complaint alleges.
When LeTray refused to take the booking photo, because they wouldn’t allow her to clean off her makeup, which was running down her face because she'd been crying, police charged her with another misdemeanor: obstruction of governmental administration in the second degree.
The officers escorted LeTray to a holding cell, but when she grabbed her hair clip to snap back into her hair, Cummings allegedly tackled her, ripped the clip from her head and threw it in the trash. He and White then placed LeTray in a “hog-tie” restraint and carried her to Cummings’ patrol car. “We are going to show you that you are a man,” Cummings said, according to the lawsuit.
“You are going to go to the jail and get strip searched,” the officers allegedly added. “You’re going to love that.”
The cops transported LeTray, who was crying for her mother, to the Jefferson County jail for a cavity search. There, Joel Dettmer, a corrections officer with the sheriff’s office, ordered her to remove all her clothing so she was naked while four officers watched.
LeTray asked for a more private room and for a female officer to conduct the cavity search but Dettmer refused, allegedly making derogatory remarks about LeTray’s body.
Dettmer, the lawsuit alleges, probed her rectum and grabbed her genitalia numerous times. “Throughout the abusive incident, C.O. Dettmer, Officer Cummings and the others present used male pronouns when referring to Ms. LeTray and used her masculine name despite her stated desire to be called DeAnna,” the complaint states. “They also made derogatory comments and sexually harassed Ms. LeTray for being a transgender woman.”
“None of the police reports or Jail booking documents indicate that Ms. LeTray was observed exhibiting behavior that would indicate she was trying to hide drugs or any other prohibited item on or in her person,” the court filing adds.
LeTray was left alone in a pre-arraignment booking cell, where she broke down and contemplated killing herself, the lawsuit alleges. The next morning, authorities brought her to Watertown City Court and she was released after posting $500 bail.
According to the complaint, LeTray has attended weekly therapy and has severe anxiety, panic attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress because of the abusive encounter with law enforcement.
She first filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights in September 2018, but the agency claimed it had no jurisdiction over police departments and jails. She unsuccessfully appealed the decision.
Last September, LeTray filed a pro se lawsuit against the police and sheriff’s office. Legal Services of Central New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union now jointly represent her in the first amended complaint, which names multiple officers including White, Dettmer and Cummings as defendants.
LeTray’s lawsuit argues the Jefferson County jail’s practice of strip-searching pre-arraignment arrestees is unconstitutional and in violation of jail policy prohibiting manual body cavity searches unless a court orders them. Court-ordered body cavity searches must be conducted by medical personnel, the court filing says.
JP Perry, a staff attorney at NYCLU, told The Daily Beast that the trauma LeTray endured “is an example of the mistreatment transgender women encounter with police and the legal system, not just in this state but across the country.”
Perry said LeTray’s case is one of the first federal lawsuits after the landmark Bostock v. Clayton County—in which the Supreme Court ruled that firing someone for being LGBTQ violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—to address sex discrimination faced by transgender people in their interactions with law enforcement.
The lawsuit, Perry said, seeks to ensure that transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people are not subjected to discrimination and harassment because of their gender identity in any context, including in interactions with law enforcement and jails.
“This is one thing that happened to Ms. LeTray. But these are national issues that impact people all over the country,” Perry said, adding that for trans, gender nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex people, “these interactions [with law enforcement] disproportionately result in harassment and violence.”
In August, NYCLU reached a settlement on behalf of Jena Faith, a transgender woman and military veteran who was placed in a men’s jail in Steuben County and faced sexual harassment and mistreatment from guards and fellow detainees. She was also denied her prescribed medications.
Faith was initially housed in the women’s facility but transferred out despite being recognized as a woman for years, including in Social Security records and on her New York driver’s license.
The settlement resulted in a groundbreaking policy that protects the rights of transgender and gender noncomforming people in custody in Steuben County, and addresses their housing placement, search procedures, and other safety measures. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association helped to create the new policy, which Perry says could serve as a national model for corrections facilities.
“We think this case offers an opportunity for Jefferson County jail to adopt a policy that takes into account the needs of transgender people and provides training for corrections officers in dealing with transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex people,” Perry told The Daily Beast.
“That’s important to DeAnna,” Perry said. “To have the courage and bravery and stand up to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people.”