"We're in Methville. Where is everybody?"
Rebecca Caster, her blond hair swept into a ponytail, has posed her question from the passenger seat of an ancient Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department Crown Victoria. She and her partner, Aaron Kohrs, are cruising Sector 30, a territory bounded roughly by Interstate 435 to the east, Missouri Highway 210 to the south, Northeast Vivion Road to the north and North Oak Trafficway to the west. The police radio stays mostly quiet as the two officers pass through neighborhoods dotted with small homes, patrolling business strips stocked with check-cashing joints and tiny taverns with blacked-out windows.
The department is testing more modern vehicles, but this unit isn't one of them. The odometer hovers near 215,000, and the AC wheezes. A shotgun is locked down between the two cops, and there's no barrier between the front and back seats.
It's the first Saturday afternoon of August, and nothing is happening north of the river. The sun shines down on miles of idle road-construction projects, and traffic is light.
"Why is nobody out?" Kohrs asks Caster during a commercial break on the oldies station they've been singing along with. Blood, Sweat and Tears (no calls). The Eagles (no calls). Stevie Wonder (no calls).
Caster and Kohrs pull into a QuikTrip to pick up cold drinks. (The first rule of patrol officers is to stop exclusively at QuikTrips: "7-Elevens don't have public restrooms," Caster says. "QuikTrips clean their bathrooms every hour, on the hour.") But before Kohrs can head inside, their unit finally gets a call: an "outside disturbance" at a nearby Wal-Mart. The dispatcher advises Caster and Kohrs to look for a red Toyota.
Kohrs switches on the siren and the lights and accelerates into the low 50s. The store is only a mile or so away, and soon the partners are scanning its parking lot for red Toyotas. (Whoever called 911 apparently didn't provide a model.)
After a few minutes, two Wal-Mart managers direct the officers toward a young man leaning against the trunk of a white Ford Taurus. The 23-year-old man called police after finding his 16-year-old sister at the store with a boyfriend he says is abusive. The sister and her boyfriend have already left. The brother, a distraught, lanky blond kid, wants the officers to issue a restraining order against the boyfriend.
"It's up to her to do that," Caster, an officer for 11 years, tells him in a commanding voice. "She has to file the restraining order."
"She'll take the abuse until she's dead," the brother says. "We weren't raised right. It's my sister. She's so little, and she's not eating. She's on that K2 stuff, and it's messing her up."
The officers comfort him as best they can while reinforcing that there's nothing they can do until the sister makes her own police call.
"We don't have a victim here," Caster tells him. "Be there for her when she's ready."
As the unit returns to duty, the officers don't talk. They share a moment of frustrated silence that's part of the job. All that awaits them on this part of their shift is a minor fender bender.
But a quiet afternoon is something of a break for Caster, who, in addition to her patrol duties, has spent the past nine months as the KCPD's first LGBT community liaison.
Her new gig puts her in charge of forming a strong relationship with LGBT residents of the city as well as promoting a culture of acceptance and openness for LGBT officers on the force. The work — searching for unfair policies, advising gay officers and reaching out to advocacy groups — keeps her busy. And she took the job at the end of a five-year personal storm. Calm Saturday patrols might be just what Caster needs more of.
A brush with cancer, a miscarriage, a divorce, coming out gay. Any of these events by itself would be plenty for one person in a lifetime. Caster, though, spent a tumultuous five years enduring all of them in rapid succession — as she will happily relate to you over coffee. (The only outward sign: a shark-bite-shaped scar from a surgical procedure.)
First came the miscarriage, in February 2008. It caused problems in her marriage, she says. "When I had the miscarriage, we kind of drifted apart." She and her husband separated, and she began spending time with members of the LGBT community.
"He had made assumptions because I was hanging out with somebody who was, according to other people — gossip, rumors — bisexual," she says of her ex-husband, also a police officer. "So he started to have concerns."
In 2009, he told her that he was ready to end their marriage.
"I begged him to stay because I feared that I would be outed," Caster says. "And I feared that I wouldn't have that perfect little life with the white picket fence."
With both of them on the job, work became uncomfortable. "It was awkward for a while," Caster says. "And a lot of people took sides because we had mutual friends in the department."
In January 2010, just a few months after the divorce was final, Caster's doctor noticed something on her left knee. For a person who describes herself as "really, really pale," skin exams had become routine. "I've had 60 freckles and moles removed," Caster says.
This time was different.
She had surgery to remove the melanoma to prevent its spread to the popliteal lymph node in the knee. "It could have been really bad," she says. (As of this week, she was awaiting the results of new tests.)
A few years before, her father had successfully beaten the same disease. Caster says he told her then, "You never know how much you want to live until somebody tells you that you may not." It was time, Caster now understood, to embrace her new life.
She says, "I just realized: I can live a miserable existence or just be who I am. When I got cancer, that's when it didn't hurt me to be out about it. I didn't feel like I needed to hide it anymore."
Acceptance from others wasn't a given, though.
Caster grew up in the Northland with five older brothers in a socially conservative household — "a very Christian home," she says. She had been raised to want sameness, to value conformity. Now she felt that familiar pressure again: Some family members suggested that she wasn't gay but was instead suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the miscarriage.
"I wanted a normal life," she says. "I didn't want to disappoint my parents and my family and to be different from other people. I wanted to be the same."
But she had always had an idea that she was different. While her friends were crushing on boys, she was gravitating toward mostly male social circles. And she definitely knew that she felt something her friends didn't for Paula Abdul in the 1990s. "I had a thing for her," she says, laughing. "Who didn't?"
Her brother Tim, 34, a former cruise-line singer, had come out to their parents four years before. By then, he had dealt privately with years of denial, including a short stint in what he calls "pray the gay away" therapy.
"They'd say things like, 'You can't be around my children,' " Tim says of their brothers, who wouldn't share drinking cups with him. "Like, 'You're going to get AIDS, and you're going to die, and you're going to hell.' "
Caster had seen all of this and was reluctant to withstand it herself. But in 2010, she and Tim went to Bistro 303 in Westport, and after several drinks, she told him.
"I was like, 'OK, you watched me go through all that crap, and you couldn't tell me?' " Tim says.
"When I came out to him, he was a little upset with me," Caster says. "He basically asked me, 'Why did you let me go through that by myself?' He went through a lot. He kind of felt like, 'Where were you? Why didn't you stand up with me?' Well, because I saw what you were going through, and it scared the hell out of me."
The story has become family lore, enough so at least for the two of them to joke about it now.
"Sometimes when I'm drunk there [at Bistro 303], I'll tell the story of how this is where I came out to my brother, and I'll point out the bar stool," Caster says.
An LGBT community liaison isn't a novel idea. Cities around the country — not just Atlanta and Los Angeles but even Boise, Idaho, and Fargo, North Dakota — beat Kansas City to it, assigning an officer to build relationships with LGBT citizens.
If the Kansas City Police Department was relatively slow to create such a position, no one on the force wanted to explain why. Caster estimates that the KCPD's policies are about a decade behind those of other big-city police departments. The first time she recalls hearing that gay-advocacy groups were lobbying the department for a liaison was under Chief James Corwin. "For unknown reasons," she says, "they didn't see the need for it. They asked again under Chief Darryl Forté, and it was a go. There wasn't a hesitation."
"There is a sense of urgency, and I think it comes from Chief Forté," says KCPD Deputy Chief Cheryl Rose, commander of the Professional Development and Research Bureau and the highest-ranking gay member of the force. "I'm not saying that other chiefs in the past haven't cared, but that's one of his platforms — that we make everything right and fair for everyone."
Rose, a 26-year veteran of the force, adds: "It isn't like all of a sudden it was horrible before, and now we're making it better. It's [that] we're more attuned to fair and equitable treatment in our policies."
Capt. Dan Haley, the department's diversity commander, says Forté is driving the department's publicly gay-friendly attitude shift from the top down. To understand that, he says, take note that Caster has been told she can cut through the usual bureaucratic red tape to enact a policy change.
Typically, Haley says, a beat cop who wants to make a policy or procedural change waits months to see results. First, there's paperwork. The officer hands a report to her sergeant. If the sergeant likes it, he endorses it to the captain. The captain takes it to the major. If the major approves it, the next stop is the deputy chief, who decides whether it goes to the chief and the executive command board.
Meanwhile, Haley says, "It could be sent down for revisions or additions at any time, causing this policy to take some time."
When Caster suggests a change that would help make the department more equitable for gay officers, her commanders let her jump the line.
She had long known, for instance, that the KCPD's benefits and policies were a puzzle for LGBT officers, who can add a domestic partner to their health insurance but not to their pension plans.
"If I died tomorrow," Rose says, "my partner couldn't get my pension. Which isn't fair."
With her eye on those policies, Caster spoke with a gay policewoman who had legally married her same-sex partner in Iowa. Shortly after the officer started on the force, her wife was laid up for weeks following surgery. An officer in an opposite-sex marriage would have been able to use her sick leave to care for her spouse. This gay officer, however, was forced to burn most of her vacation time to help her wife.
"If you're going to say that your domestic partner is important enough that we'll give you time off when they die, your domestic partner is important enough that we'll give them insurance, but your domestic partner is not important enough that if they are sick or bedridden, that we'll let you off work?" she says. "We need uniformity."
Caster advocated for a policy change, and her notes went to the top and earned approval in three weeks. No more lost vacation time for cops like the woman Caster talked to.
Typically, Rose says, an officer's suggestion takes about six months to run the gauntlet to the top. Not for Caster.
"Those suggestions will come directly to me, and I'll send those up to the chief and the executive committee," Haley says. "That's a pretty short process, if you think about it."
In addition to policy changes, Caster's liaison role is geared to make her a resource for her fellow gay officers. She's setting up a mentoring program for recent LGBT graduates of the academy, and she plans monthly meetings for officers who are out and officers who are closeted. ("I'd say I run into 10 to 15 that I run into at bars or whatever," she says of the latter group.)
Rose says having a point person for gay officers will be crucial as the department both attracts more who are gay and works on its reputation internally. She tells the story of a ceremony the department held last year, honoring her for 25 years of service. Her partner's attendance was acknowledged during the ceremony.
"Some young gay person in our department [at the ceremony] made a comment to someone else: 'Wow, that's really cool.' That's a positive," she says. "I don't look at myself as an inspiration because I wasn't out until five years ago. But the fact that I've been promoted since then shows that, yeah, it's no big deal."
Caster has been making an effort to get to more LGBT events. She and a handful of other officers went to the Kansas City Pride Festival this summer. It was the department's first such presence at the festival, with Caster attempting a difficult dual task: improving the KCPD from within while forming a bond with the LGBT community.
"I think we recognize that there is a problem," she says. "We can sit here and say we're going to go recruit from Pride events and all these LGBT events and we're going to just recruit more people who are openly gay. That's not going to change things, because if we're not OK internally, they're going to come on the department and feel excluded in some way."
"I didn't think she had the huevos," Brianna Lopez says of her girlfriend's decision to accept the liaison position. "It seems like she's a whole new person professionally, and that translates into her social life."
Caster lives in her Northland bungalow with Lopez, a graduate student studying to be a family counselor, and Tim. There's a 12-year-old beagle named Bella and a 2-year-old blue pit bull named Romi.
Over coffee, Lopez says the three make their living situation work: "We're cohesive, for the most part."
"It's a strange little family, but I really like it," Caster adds.
Lopez and Tim came out long before Caster, and they give her crap for her enthusiasm over gay-rights issues. Their own sense of activism has mellowed over time. There was, for example, the June day when the Supreme Court struck down a large part of the Defense of Marriage Act. Caster, by all accounts, was ebullient.
Lopez: "We're like, 'That's great. What's for breakfast?' "
Tim: "I do my best to stay away from politics."
Caster: "And I hate that."
That such a victory still feels fresh to Caster — she herself says she has "this fire" — is, they agree, what makes her right for the liaison position.
But even during a summer that has seen Minnesota, California, Rhode Island and Delaware allow gay marriage and has dealt serious damage to DOMA, the Caster siblings know that not everybody has totally come around on equal rights. And not everybody will. Maybe not even their family.
One of Caster's brothers recently read an article about her in the local gay publication, Camp, and he objected to seeing his sister called gay in public. Caster recalls: "He said, 'I just don't like them labeling you a lesbian or Tim gay.' "
Tim says, "I don't think anybody from our family would go to Becky's wedding. Maybe the sisters-in-law."
"Dad said to me the other day, 'I don't want to be on the wrong side of history,' " Rebecca Caster says of a recent conversation they had about gay marriage.
Caster is already part of the KCPD's history. That's her job.
"I look forward to the next decade. I really do. A lot of people think that I am almost too positive," she says.