Philadelphia Police Fail To Investigate Suspicious Death of a Transgender Woman



On March 22nd of this year, Erica Keel, a 20-yr-old African American trans woman, was fatally run over at Broad and Thompson streets in North Philadelphia. According to witness accounts, the driver in question intentionally ran over Erica four times after ejecting her from his car. A medical examiner's report supports these accounts. However, the police have ruled Erica's death an accident and have refused to conduct an investigation. The driver, Roland Button, fled the scene but was later apprehended by police. He has yet to face criminal charges, including "hit and run." When friends of Erica, who are themselves trans, questioned police officials about the classification of Erica's death as an "accident," they were asked to disclose their "birth" names and were told they were "trying to make something out of nothing."

As community members and allies, we are asking for your support in challenging police injustice by demanding a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding Erica's death. Our efforts to demand justice for Erica are part of building a larger strategy to address state violence against trans youth of color in Philadelphia.

Please join us THIS FRIDAY at 4pm at the Washington West Project, 1201 Locust St., to help plan a demonstration. For more information contact Savannah: 267-879-1339

Some further coverage of Erica Keel's death is available through the Philadelphia Gay News here and here. The Philadelphia police have a history of abusive and dismissive behavior towards transgender people, as Amnesty International has reported. Erica was engaged in sex work when she died; neither her sex work nor her status as transgender should mean her death deserves less than a full investigation.

Is it any wonder they have no credibility?

Thank you. Unfortunately, Philadelphia is not unique in police profiling of transgender people (as documented in the Amnesty Report) and in its history of not investigating crimes against transgender people. The Southern Poverty Law Center Special Report on transgender related hate crimes is equally disturbing.

From the substantiated reports of police harassment by the PAC to not implementing cultural competency training recommendations (by the PAC, by the Mayor’s LGBT Advisory Board & many others) for officers, to not recruiting from the community, to not supporting the lgbt officers on the force, to not collecting statistics on hate crimes for lgbt victims – the picture is pretty clear. The Police have an institutional problem that they are sweeping under the rug.

Jen – those PGN links will disappear tomorrow. They don’t archive old stories.

From PGN

Oh thanks, yeah I wondered why there was no search function on the PGN site.

People here are happy to theoretically debate stop and frisk and whether or not we should "trust" the police, but pretty quiet when the specific and not-at-all-pretty topic of the treatment of the trans community comes up.

Here's some more background from the PGN articles:

Advocates for slain trans woman Erica Keel are criticizing a decision by city officials to classify her death as an accident. They’re convinced Keel was the victim of a vicious hate crime and that the driver is getting away with murder.

But police say the evidence, so far, indicates that Keel was simply the victim of a motor-vehicle accident.

A car struck Keel, 21, at about 2 a.m. March 21, at the intersection of Broad and Thompson streets in North Philadelphia. She died two days later at Hahnemann University Hospital from multiple injuries.

According to Jeff Moran, spokesperson for the Medical Examiner’s Office, the manner of death was accidental.

However, Savannah Hornback, a close friend of Keel, told PGN that two witnesses saw the car hitting Keel four times.

The witnesses, whom Hornback would not identify, said Keel entered the car in question at Broad Street and Girard Avenue.

Keel was engaging in sex work at the time of the incident, said Hornback, a peer educator for Youth Health Empowerment Project.

The car headed north one block to Broad and Thompson, where the driver allegedly ejected Keel from the car.

“The eyewitnesses told me Erica was thrown to the street, where she hit her head on the asphalt,” Hornback said.

Then, the driver allegedly ran over Keel four times as she lay in the street.

“He backed up over her, then went forward, then backed up over her again, then went forward,” Hornback said.

But Lt. John Hearns of the Police Accident Investigation Division disputed that version of events.

“We have independent witnesses who indicate it was basically an accident,” Hearns said. “We also have a statement from the driver of the vehicle.”

After Keel was hit by the vehicle, she flew into the air, landed on a parked car, bounced off, then landed on a fire hydrant, Hearns said.

Aside from the questions over whether the impact was intentional or accidental, there is dispute over whether the driver (who has not been charged) stayed at the scene or left, making the incident a fatal hit and run (which under state law "is considered a third-degree felony, carrying a mandatory sentence of one year in prison and a $2,500 fine").

According to records at the city ME’s office, Bottom allegedly failed to stop at the scene, and the office designated the case as a “hit-and-run accident.”

But a police official refuted that designation.

“I have no control over what the Medical Examiner’s Office does,” Lt. John Hearn of the Police Accident Investigation Division told PGN May 1. “The striking vehicle stayed at the scene. It’s not classified as a hit-and-run auto accident [by the AID].”

In conflict with Hearn’s statement is a handwritten log at the AID office listing Keel’s fatality as a “hit-and-run.” Hearn declined to comment on the handwritten log.

In this sort of situation--the dead woman was allegedly a sex worker, the driver who killed her denies he hired her and claims he accidentally hit her when she was in the street, witnesses include other trans women and sex workers who risk being disbelieved or retaliated against--the risk of prejudice influencing policing decisions is real and the need for the sort of training and reforms Kathy describes above is acute.


A Best Practice - LGTB Police Unit in DC

This won't solve any immediate problems, but the below case study might be one institutional change that would help in the future:

"The Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) is staffed by openly gay, lesbian and transgender members of the department and their allies. Since its inception in June 2000, the GLLU has dedicated itself to serving the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) communities in the Washington Metropolitan area and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The GLLU is supervised by Brett Parson, an openly gay official on MPDC. The GLLU is an evolving unit within the Metropolitan Police Department. Please call upon us! We are here in the community for you."

Quote is from their website:

good idea

Chaka Fattah was ensorsed by OutFront PAC and in response to their joint questionnaire with Liberty City, he said this:

What Police Department education, training, policies and procedures would you put in place to assure that members of the LGBT community are treated fairly with respect to the law and in a protective, respectful and enlightened way during interactions with the PPD throughout the City of Philadelphia?

Ensuring the safety of all Philadelphians is one of the most important jobs of the Mayor’s office. To this end, I will work with the Police Commissioner and interested community members to ensure that our policing and safety methods include strategies that take LGBT communities and issues into consideration. I will direct the Police Department to identify a set of best practices to be adapted to better serve LGBT communities including looking into the development of a specialized LGBT relations unit, and will require that all police receive training in LGBT issues and sensitivity.I will also make sure that my Police Commissioner forms a productive working relationship with the Police Advisory Commission and that the Commission’s input is heard and valued.

No Politics for a Second?

It's great that Fattah mentioned it; I was just trying to offer a policy suggestion without mentioning a candidate.

It's a very good idea. It

It's a very good idea. It would also be good to have LGBT representation on a civilian review board (w/expanded powers and resources), plus a place besides the police department where people can lodge complaints against officers for abuse, harassment, or as an alternate place to come forth as witnesses.

respecting Friedman's wish

Aside from unpacking what is wrong with the systems that are supposed to protect us (ie the police), the fact of the matter is that people' attitudes toward gender on the whole are very bizarre and violence and economic disempowerment of trans people is really fucked up.

And the fact that job and hiring discrimination for trans and other genderqueer people is huge, is one reason that sex work becomes a way for some trans folks earn money. And sex work can be dangerous work in many ways.

There is already a gay man

There is already a gay man on the PAC. A transgender person served in the past (myself. When I left - I requested another transgender person be appointed to take that space. The PAC has done excellent work investigating complaints.Their lack of resources and the fact that it's case recommendations are routinely ignored are ingoing problems.

Best Practices

Yes - this was discussed with the Commissioner.

Sorry - should have

Sorry - should have elaborated. The issue has been brought up several times over the last 7 years that I am aware of & the Mayor's LGBT Advisory Board had a meeting with high level department officials & the Commissioner 3 years ago after the Commissioners LGBT advisory committee raised concerns.

Let's remeber that the City had to settle a suit for $250,000? over the Nizah Morris case - had they gone to court - other cases have been well over seven figures. Sadly - the only reason firdt responder departments seem to begin changing are very large $ judgements. In DC in was the Tyra Hunter case.

Tyra Hunter (circa 1970 - August 7, 1995) was a 24 year old transsexual woman who died after being injured as a passenger in a car accident. Emergency medical technicians at the scene of the accident uttered derogatory epithets and withdrew medical care after discovering her birth sex, and ER staff at DC General Hospital subsequently provided dilatory and inadequate care.

On December 11, 1998 a jury awarded Tyra's mother, Margie Hunter, $2,873,000 after finding the District of Columbia guilty of negligence and malpractice. While $500,000 of the amount was awarded for damages attributable to the withdrawal of medical care at the accident scene, a further $1,500,000 was for conscious pain and suffering endured by Tyra in the emergency room as the result of medical malpractice. Dana Priesing, an observer at the wrongful death trial, wrote that the evidence supported "the inference that a stereotype (namely that Tyra was an anonymous, drug using, TG street person) affected the treatment Tyra received," and that the "ER staff, as evidenced by their actions, did not consider her life worth saving."

Sad to say...

... for the most part, motor vehicle-pedestrian incidents, even if the pedestrian is killed, are usually not taken terribly seriously under PA law. I suspect that, if you do just as this driver did, literally backing over a person multiple times to make sure that s/he's dead, and say "oops... sorry" afterwards, you'll probably get off w/at most a citation for reckless driving.

I have personal experience on the receiving end here,

True Justice for Erika

Erika was an amazing person that was loved by many people and we would support almost anything that could bring justice to her horrific death. We would, however, caution folks that want to get involved in organizing a rally or make comments on this blog without finding out if the info presented as facts are true. We know that trans people are not treated fairly by the police and by the majority of our society. We're just concerned that well intentioned advocates may rally around something that they didn’t have all the proper facts about, which could potentially damage the integrity of people who work so hard in trying to ensure peoples' rights and safety.
We do stand behind demanding the truth about what happened to Erika, for she was a beloved person whose life was ended unjustly.
friends of Erika

Thank you for posting

I hope that you feel free to come and post if there is information you want shared or any way that readers of the site could be helpful in bringing further attention to this in a productive way.


A 20 year old. I know

A 20 year old. I know there has to be a political response and that is important, please also be practical. It is a tragedy , the family will need support , both financially and emotionally. Is there someone out there collecting funds for the family? Is there a memorial planned for her? These things do mean a lot to families when they lose a loved one. A card means a lot, a financial donation,no matter how small , means a lot.

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