As a community, we have had a long and complicated relationship with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. While our current relationship is overwhelmingly positive, sometimes it is not clear if the City of West Hollywood is the local Sheriff’s Station’s employer or its cheerleader.
At the Dec. 1 City Council meeting, much of the time allotted for citizen’s comments was was focused on the issue of law enforcement in West Hollywood. Or to be precise, the lack thereof.
Ben Coleman of “Keep West Hollywood Safe” commented about a lack of police presence in our neighborhoods and a disturbing pattern of under or inaccurate reporting of crime by the Sheriff’s Station, a habit that not only lulls the community into a false sense of security but also creates a host of unintended consequences which only exacerbate the situation. It is hard to allocate resources to fight crime when you don’t know the extent or nature of the problem.
Ben’s comments were followed by those of a resident who was recently mugged as he was walking to his car, parked just off Santa Monica Boulevard on the Westside. The victim described being held up at gunpoint, struck in the face and knocked to the ground, with his assailants making off with his wallet and his keys. Looking for help, he walked back to Santa Monica Boulevard where sheriff’s deputies had erected a roadblock in an attempt to arrest drunk drivers. “Did they shoot you?” the deputies asked.
When it was clear he had not been shot the deputies at the traffic check point immediately became disinterested and unhelpful. It took nearly half an hour before a deputy responded to the man’s request for help. By that time any hope of apprehending the criminals had long passed. The victim made a comment to the Council that if the deputies had been patrolling the streets rather than congregating at the DUI check point, they might have actually caught some violent criminals.
Scott Schmidt, a former city transportation commissioner, attended the meeting with his arm in a sling. Scott related a story about being injured when he was violently shoved into the street at the intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente boulevards in an unprovoked incident. Schmidt said that the deputy who eventually took his report was patient and compassionate, but the deputy who initially responded simply asked him if he had been drinking and then tried to dissuade him from reporting the incident. Indeed the deputy seemed annoyed by Schmidt’s insistence on reporting the assault. This corroborated Ben Coleman’s concerns about inaccurate reporting of criminal activity.
Then Tracy Patton, who lives in a condo on Hayworth, testified before the Council that a woman was followed up the stairs of their building and was mugged by two men and had her purse stolen.
I spoke to the Council about an incident that was related to me by a friend and West Hollywood resident who lives just south of the Sunset Strip. He recently received a six figure settlement from the Sheriff’s Department, compensation after he had been pulled over in front of his apartment and pushed up against a wall, injuring his shoulder. Throughout the incident he was subjected to homophobic slurs from the arresting deputies. My friend is not gay, and the incident occurred while Kelly Frazier, an open lesbian, was captain of the West Hollywood station. Although my friend was taken to the Sheriff’s Station, no charges were filed.
After the citizens’ comments the City Council responded with the usual platitudes. Paul Arevalo, the City Manager, was more forthcoming in his response to the public safety comments, but it was odd that the only ones he specifically addressed where mine. Arevalo stated that in regard to my friend’s settlement, “some of the information was not exactly as the Sheriff has it…”
In Arevalo’s defense, I am sure that is true. I don’t have all the facts. I wasn’t there. I was not the victim’s attorney. But I suspect my “information” is a lot more accurate than the “information” the Sheriff’s Department provided to the City Manager. The one undisputed fact is the taxpayers of the County of Los Angeles paid a West Hollywood resident a substantial settlement as a result of the incident. Why is it that the city feels it needs to go out of its way to defend the Sheriff’s Department when a large civil settlement would strongly indicate that something was very much amiss? While I am sure this was an isolated incident, none the less it is a disturbing one.
All communities have complicated relationships with law enforcement. In West Hollywood we are lucky to have a local Sheriff’s Station largely staffed by men and women who want to be in this community and are proud professionals. We are able to actually know and befriend many of the uniformed personnel who patrol our city. We also have a large cadre of dedicated local volunteers who help integrate the department into our community. I believe we get great value for our taxpayer dollars by contracting for law enforcement services with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
But sometimes I get the impression our local Sheriff’s Station is the equivalent of a high school football team, and the City Council and city staff are the fawning student council and school administration for whom the home team can do no wrong. Most of us remember the jocks on the football team who, while they might have been bullies and dullards, somehow the rules that applied to the rest of us did not apply to them. We can’t have a real partnership with law enforcement in West Hollywood until the leadership of the city decides it is time for an adult relationship with the Sheriff’s Department.
We should express our gratitude toward those in uniform who protect us, our homes and our businesses. But it is bad management to not apply any sort of serious accountability to law enforcement. It does not make our streets safer to have crime under reported. It does not make law enforcement more responsive when we ignore obvious instances of unprofessional conduct.
We should remember that West Hollywood historically has played an outsized role in reforming the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and making it more accountable. However most of those reforms came from grassroots activists, not from City Hall.
In the early days of the city, the Eastside was plagued by street prostitution and associated crime. It was neighborhood activists such as Ruth Williams and Donna Saur who demanded greater and more effective law enforcement. Their early work with the department helped develop what we now call “community based policing.” It could be argued that West Hollywood was one of the first communities where the Sheriff’s Department began to work directly with neighborhoods to proactively address crimes that were neighborhood specific. The activists did all the work and somehow City Hall got all the credit.
In the early 1990’s, City Councilmember John Duran and I worked together with scores of local activists to fight rampant homophobia in the Sheriff’s Department. City Hall was impotent when the department fired Bruce Boland, a local deputy who was outted as gay and then wrongfully accused of misconduct. John Duran initially represented Boland in his civil suit for reinstatement, and I represented him in his successful suit against his union for failure to provide for his defense.
Boland was reinstated after a long ordeal. When we testified before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to create a commission to study racism and homophobia in the Sheriff’s Department, no one from City Hall came to back us up. Eventually the Board of Supervisors created the Kolts Commission, which marked the first step toward eliminating institutionalized homophobia in the department.
West Hollywood is a relatively safe city, but we still must spend more time listening to the public to calibrate our law enforcement needs. We should not engage in witch hunts. But how our neighborhoods are patrolled, what sorts of resources we devote toward making our community safer and how to foster the highest levels of professionalism — all should be subjects of open and vigorous public discussion. Now that we have a newly elected sheriff, Jim MacDonnell, replacing the inept Lee Baca, it is the perfect time to have this conversation.
Steve Martin, an attorney, is a former member of the West Hollywood City Council.