06/28/2012 07:04 EDT | Updated 08/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Toronto transgender people say they're targets of police

Toronto police say they are working to improve their relationship with the city's transgender community, even as some transgender people say they're being targeted by officers.

“The policy itself requires that interactions with transgender-transsexual people will take full account of their human rights," said Alok Mukerjee, the chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. "And give them the same respectful treatment as anybody else."

In turn, people in the transgender community say they're still stigmatized and often mistaken for prostitutes.

The comments from both sides come in the midst of the city's huge annual Pride celebrations, and just weeks after Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to protect the rights of transgender people.

Police began tracking the number of times officers search or detain people who identify themselves as transgender in 2010. That year, it happened 186 times. In 2011, that number rose to 244.

The policy states that whether a person is transsexual or transgender is not a determination made by the police officer, Mukerjee said. A person being detained by police must self-identify as transgender.

Toronto police spokeswoman Const. Wendy Drummond and Mukerjee both said the increase is due to more transgender people identifying themselves as such during interactions with police.

"The more that people come into our custody and are aware of our policy, they’re advising us of their status and we’re able to record that," Drummond said.

The yearly tally is one of the results of a settlement reached in 2004 between Toronto police and the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission found merit in a 2001 complaint against the police, after male officers raided a bathhouse event for women and transgender people where men weren't permitted.

Mukerjee said the tracking data is the last of a number of measures the police enacted because of the ruling.

“It does seem like a long time, but it was not as a result of any reluctance or any resistance," he said. "Simply making sure we were being thorough."

The updated policy also says that police shouldn't place transgender women in a cell full of men, and that transgender people have the right to request a male or a female to conduct body searches.

Mukerjee also said the settlement has led to better training modules for officers, borne out of consultation with the community.

Some transgender people claim harassment

Despite the policy changes, there are still rumblings from Toronto’s transgender community of harassment by police.

Clients of the 519 Church Street Community Centre, located in the LGBT-friendly neighbourhood of Church and Wellesley in downtown Toronto, report to staff three or four times a month about being stopped and searched by police.

"In the trans community we have a phrase for it: It's called walking while trans," said Morgan M. Page, the centre's trans-community services co-ordinator.

Page, who is a transgender woman, said “walking while trans is definitely an in-joke within our community. It's kind of a snappy way of summing up a whole variety of experiences we're regularly [subjected] to by police.”

She said the phrase refers to how often police stop, search and arrest transgender people because officers suspect they're prostitutes. She says it happens most often to those born men who now live as women.

“About a month ago I heard of a young trans woman in her early twenties [who] was stopped in broad daylight by police who searched her bag and started accusing her of being a sex worker because she had a couple of condoms in her bag," Page said. "She luckily was not arrested but was quite shaken".

Susan Gapka, chair of the Trans Lobby Group, said she's been detained or searched by Toronto police a few times in her decade as a woman. She worries about how the general public and authorities may treat her every time she goes to a public washroom or through airport security.

"So it's really living in fear or worry of apprehension and it's difficult."