A portrait of Merrique Jenson, a Kansas City trans woman of color.
Merrique Jenson is the founder and executive director of Transformations KC, a nonprofit organization which supports and advocates for trans women of color. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Four years ago, a viral video showed two Kansas City police officers slamming a Black transgender woman, Brianna BB Hill, onto the sidewalk, kneeling on her in the face, torso and ribs and forcing her cuffed hands above her head. 

In the time since, the officers pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. And Hill was shot to death in an unrelated encounter. At the time of her death, she was the third documented trans woman to be murdered in Kansas City in 2019, according to the Human Rights Campaign

In the wake of her assault and homicide, transgender activists continue to remember Hill and cite her story as a source of their mistrust with police.

“There’s a much larger system in place with KCPD not listening to Black and Latino community members,” said Merrique Jenson, the founder and executive director of Transformations KC, which supports and advocates for trans women of color. 

Police officials told The Beacon they are taking steps to build trust with the LGBTQ+ community, including elevating a liaison position from part-time to full-time and reviewing the department’s policies dealing with transgender and nonbinary citizens to see if they should be updated.

Brianna BB Hill

In May 2019, police were called to a beauty supply store at 1319 E. Brush Creek Parkway. Details are unclear, but the owner wanted Hill off of the premises. 

Hill was at the front of the store when now-former KCPD officers Matthew Brummett and Charles Prichard arrived at the scene. They arrested Hill and slammed her to the ground.

“So I’m at home and my phone rings. It’s BB,” said Kris Wade, the founder of the Justice Project, an organization that supports and advocates for vulnerable women, including trans women of color who may live or work in the streets.

Hill, a longtime client, was calling from University Health Truman Medical Center. 

“She said, ‘Miss Kris, you need to come down here and take pictures.’ And I said, ‘Well, what happened?’ And she goes, ‘I got beat up,’” Wade said. 

 “I go in there and she is beat to hell.”

The officers had issued Hill citations for resistance, trespassing, disorderly conduct and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to the prosecutor’s office. She spent time in a holding cell before making her way to the hospital.

Prichard and Brummett were sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation in 2022. They had to surrender their peace officers’ licenses, and neither can serve in law enforcement in Missouri again. 

While the sentencing of the two officers was a small win for the trans community, many still felt the officers were let off easy. 

“I knew that the community was going to be disappointed because they weren’t going to prison,” said Wade, who testified in the court case. “Because they’re thinking, if we did this, we would have gone to prison.” 

Dangers posed to trans women of color

Hill was one of at least 27 trans individuals to be killed nationwide that year alone. This year, The Human Rights Campaign has documented 10 trans murders so far.

The risks to trans and queer individuals of color in Kansas City, which includes the murders of Dionte Greene in 2014 and Tamara Dominguez in 2015, inspired Jenson to form Transformations KC in 2016. 

After arriving in Kansas City in 2014, Jenson organized a community roundtable that included representatives from KCPD and families of trans and queer murder victims. 

According to Jenson, the encounter did not go well. Families felt the police brushed off their concerns.

“These situations continue to show a pattern,” she said. “We see that not only do the police not take it seriously, and not want to actually listen to the concerns—if anything, the community’s kind of gaslit.”

Trans women, especially trans women of color, are more than four times as likely as cisgender people to become the victim of a violent crime. 

Some resort to prostitution for financial stability due to job discrimination and a host of other factors. 

“A lot of us were sex workers because a lot of us didn’t have adequate education due to moving out at an early age or running away from home,” said Kelly Nou, a board member of Transformations KC. She is a first-generation Cambodian-American immigrant who has lived in Kansas City since she was young and transitioned over 20 years ago.

A portrait of Kelly Nou, a Kansas City trans woman of color.
Kelly Nou, a board member of Transformations KC, is a first-generation Cambodian-American immigrant who transitioned over 20 years ago. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Nou ran away from home as a youth and had to turn to sex work to support herself. And while she has been able to escape that life, she has lost many sisters to the violences of sexual exploitation.

“Everyday life is very dangerous for some because when you’re doing sex work, you don’t know what type of man you encounter,” she said. 

The ongoing safety concerns are compounded by governments in Missouri and Kansas, which are creating a hostile environment with efforts aimed at restricting trans people from certain accommodations and limiting their access to gender-affirming therapy, Jenson said. 

Turning the page with KCPD

The decision by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office to prosecute Brummett and Prichard over their treatment of Hill created friction with KCPD. They argued, for one thing, over the police department’s refusal to provide essential documents.

Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she is hoping for a more cooperative relationship with Chief Stacey Graves, who was sworn in almost five months ago.

“I am working hard to turn the page with this new police chief,” she said. “The community deserves that.”

Already, the new KCPD administration has taken steps to improve its relationship with LGBTQ+ communities. 

Alex Saragusa, the department’s LGBTQ+ liaison officer, said Graves quickly elevated his part-time position to a full-time post.

As part of his role, Saragusa serves on the city’s Human Rights Commission as the hate and bias crime chairperson, and connects with advocates on trans issues.

The department has announced plans to participate in the AIDS Walk this year — a first in the walk’s 35-year history. And it will staff a booth at the KC PrideFest in June.

Also for pride month, KCPD is planning a genderless self-defense course. And Saragusa is working with LGBTQ+ bars on recognizing and reporting viable threats and being prepared in case of a shooter or other incidents.

While reviewing its procedures for dealing with citizens who are LGBTQ+, the department is already rolling out training for current and future officers, Saragusa said. It includes a curriculum on proper pronoun usage. 

Jenson commended the department’s new leadership for those steps but said even more work needs to be done. 

“The KCPD, or KC in general, has a history of using people of color and queer and trans folks to create a sort of performance,” she said. “In the words of my sisters, we call them stunt queens.”

Jenson said white trans persons usually are tapped to help craft policies for a diverse community.

“Whenever I hear that an org or city department is having a training, my question is: Who is leading the training and what is their relationship with the org doing the training?” she said. 

She called for “genuine relationship building” among police officials and Kansas City trans women of color. 

Jenson is organizing a June 7 town hall called “Nothing for Us Without Us” with city and police officials. It will take place at a location to be determined. 

The people doing the work

In 2020, the Kansas City Council established an LGBTQ Commission to provide insight to city officials.

JD Bezares, a Latino trans man, serves as the housing commissioner. Bezares says the group is looking for more support

We’ve had some challenges with funding,” he said. “We don’t have a budget line item in the city’s budget, which is problematic because that puts all the work back on the folks that are being marginalized to figure things out, which is very typical. Something we’ve seen here in Kansas City is that a lot of people want us to work for free.”

Melissa Kozakiewicz, an assistant city manager and the LGBTQ liasion for the city manager’s office, said the city does not fund any of its boards or commissions, whose role is primarily to provide guidance.

But Bezares warned of burnout among unpaid volunteers and said he’d like to see more support from the City Council on long-range planning. 

A portrait of JD Bezares.
JD Bezares is a Latino trans man that serves as the housing commissioner for Kansas City Council’s LGBTQ Commission. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Nou, who has lived in Kansas City as a trans woman for two decades, said she has been called upon more frequently to contribute to conversations with city officials. She wants to see those opportunities opened up for more Kansas City trans women of color. 

“I’ve never really been the center of any discussion, it’s always like white trans women that are being called,” she said. “So it’s good to see that recently that there was like me and Merrique being a part of this conversation, and other trans women of color.”

Most of all, Nou wants to experience a larger sense of support, not just from city officials but from Kansas City as a whole. Trans people need allies in the face of hostile legislation in Jefferson City and Topeka, she said.

“We definitely need love poured in,” Nou said. “Because these bills are just pushing hate on us and it’s pushing others to hate on us as well.”

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.