Members of Morristown’s gay community now can get more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
If they feel threatened, they can find safety while waiting for police to arrive.
“Morristown Safe Place” emulates a program started two years ago by Seattle police.
Participating businesses display a rainbow sticker on their doors indicating they are trained by police to help Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) individuals escape danger.
If someone who is fearful enters, employees of these businesses will call 911 and provide shelter until police arrive.
Morristown is New Jersey’s first municipality to implement Safe Place. The program is up and running in Louisville, Tucson, and Orlando, with plans to expand into Canada and Europe.
Although law enforcement officials said no major crimes against the LGBTQ community have been reported in Morristown or Morris County, the Safe Place program offers reassurance during these turbulent times, said its founder, Seattle Officer Jim Ritter, at Thursday’s kickoff ceremony at Starbucks on South Street.
“We’ve all seen over the last year, during the political process, there’s a lot of divisive rhetoric that’s going on out there. A lot of people from minority communities, including the LGB communities, aren’t sure where the public in general stands on these issues,” Ritter said.
The 37-year police veteran, who is openly gay, said Morristown is sending a clear message.
“This is symbolism that has more than just a beautiful sticker. It’s a mission and a statement that lets people know that there is an energy behind this initiative that keeps people safe,” Ritter said.
Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz said he was tipped off to Safe Place by employees at Morristown Medical Center.
“I’ve come to realize programs such as this are extremely important … These programs make it easier for people to approach the police. We don’t realize sometimes that we’re very intimidating,” Demnitz said.
Mayor Tim Dougherty said Safe Place is a reminder that Morristown is a progressive place with “the best police department” in New Jersey.
“Not only are we a ‘Fair and Welcoming’ community, we’re a fair and welcoming community for everyone. That includes our LGBTQ community, which is why we’re out here today,” said Dougherty, a Democrat seeking a third term. Councilwoman Michelle Duprée Harris is challenging him in the June primary.
Town officials are studying whether to formally declare “Fair and Welcoming” status, to assure undocumented immigrants that police won’t team with federal immigration enforcement agents except in cases where serious crimes are suspected.
Video: How Morristown became a ‘Safe Place’
Morris County Sheriff James Gannon, a Republican, has spoken against sanctuary proclamations. But he applauded Morristown’s Safe Place initiative on Thursday.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Gannon said. “You can talk diversity all you want. This is about inclusion.”
The new sheriff said he was unaware of any crimes targeting gays in Morris County. Likewise for Morristown, Demnitz said.
Victims of such crimes often are reluctant to report them–sometimes for fear of being “outed,” Ritter said.
A new business and a South Street law office have asked to join Safe Place, said the Mayor, who is hoping for a snowball effect. Morristown’s program was launched at Starbucks because that’s where it started in Seattle, officials said.
Jennifer Perkoski, manager of the Morristown franchise, said corporate rules prevented her from commenting.
No organizations from the LGBTQ community spoke at the event. Pastor Cynthia Black of Morristown’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which advocates for gay rights, said she was not aware of the Safe Place program.
The Morristown police bureau and the town government jointly paid for Ritter’s travel here, the Police Chief and Mayor said.
Ritter, founder of the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum, kept quiet about his sexual orientation for the first decade of his police career.
Now, citing “monumental changes” in policies and attitudes, he encourages interested gay individuals to pursue jobs in law enforcement.
“Police departments of 2017 are not the same as they were even in 2001,” Ritter said. “The Seattle police department just hired its first transgender police officer in history. And the response that transgender officer got was overwhelmingly positive — even surprising me.”
Video: GIMME SHELTER: Cop creates ‘Safe Places’ for gay community