At West Hollywood’s “Coffee with the Captain” public safety forum, Sheriff’s deputies implored the public to report more information more effectively, while citizens exposed gaps in patrol’s execution of commanding orders to take community issues more seriously
Dozens of West Hollywood residents turned out today for a public discussion with the head of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station about crime in the city and what some see as the station’s lack of an effective response.
The public meeting, dubbed “Coffee with the Captain,” was hosted by Mayor Lindsey Horvath in response to increased community outcry after a spate of attacks in the city’s Boystown nightlife area over the past six months that has sent multiple victims to area hospitals, including one man who spent weeks in a medically-induced coma. Participating in the forum were Capt. Gary Honings, who heads the Sheriff’s Station, and Lt. David Smith.
In addition to sharing statistics about crime in the area and developments on high profile cases, Honing and Smith used the meeting to dispel what they said were misunderstandings about local law enforcement — most notably about the hours that deputies are on the job — and to offer tips on how the public can help them stop violent crimes in the city.
Some crime prevention advocates have expressed concern that Sheriff’s deputies leave the strip of bars and clubs in the gay nightlife area along the western end Santa Monica Boulevard around 2 a.m. to return to the station and fill out paperwork. That is the hour bars close and patrons are ushered en masse onto the sidewalks to contend with those who drank too much and those seeking a chance at an easy robbery.
Honings and Smith said the city’s contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for public safety services calls for 23 deputies to be on duty on any given day. They said the station assigns eight deputies to the early morning and late-night shifts and seven deputies to the midday shift. The three overlapping shifts cover a full 24 hours. Smith said the morning shift runs from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., the midday shift is from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., and the late-night shift extends from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Smith told those attending the meeting that due to overlapping shifts and the department’s Entertainment Policing Team, which offers car patrols across the entire city, there could be as many as 15 deputies on duty during a particular shift. However, residents have complained that only two deputies are ever on foot patrols, actually walking the streets in the densely populated city. In response to complaints about that, Smith announced on Thursday that a team of one supervisor and three deputies will walk the streets in the Boystown area on the city’s Westside six nights a week and in the area on the Eastside near the Gateway shopping complex on one night a week.
During Horvath’s moderation of the forum she asked questions of Honings and Smith that residents had raised with her with via e-mails, phone calls and text messages. Several of these questions related to the time it took for Sheriff’s deputies to get a lead on suspects related to the random acts of violence in recent weeks, most notably the May 24 attack on 45-year-old Kirk Doffing, who remains hospitalized after coming out of a medically-induced coma last month.
The slow progress of the investigation into the attack that smashed Doffing’s skull in an alley behind Rage bar near Santa Monica Boulevard sparked public outcry has caused residents to complain that the Sheriff’s Station was derelict in its responsibilities. Honings and Smith took time at today’s meeting to highlight impediments to the investigation, and they pleaded with community members to “spread the word” about ways the public can assist in stopping violent crimes.
The biggest hold-up in the Doffing case, Honings said, was that they were unable to get the victim’s statement because he was in a coma. The second major roadblock was that no witness to the crime came forward until after a $10,000 reward was offered for information. That reward, offered weeks after the attack, was a last resort that the station put off for as long as possible due to the influx of often inaccurate information a reward sometimes brings. It wasn’t until witnesses came forward that the station was able to prepare a composite sketch of the suspect in Doffing’s assault, which was just released this week.
Honings and Smith said that following the age-old adage of “see something, say something” is best way to avoid future attacks on the streets, a statement that was echoed by West Hollywood business owner Nir Zilberman. “We can’t keep blaming the city and the sheriffs for our problems — we need to work to protect ourselves,” Zilberman said.
“You’re our eyes and ears on the street,” Smith told the assembled crowd.
“Not only that,” Honings added, “you’re our best eyes and ears on the street, because this is your community, so you know when something doesn’t belong.”
The officers beseeched the crowd to help in two vital ways. First and foremost, to report a crime immediately after it occurs, especially if the caller is the victim. As an example, the officers discussed another recent beating, that of local dancer Jose Segovia, aka Joe Sega, who was attacked near the Santa Monica Boulevard club Rage last Monday morning after an argument. Segovia did not report his assault until over 24 hours after it had occurred because he was embarrassed that it had happened to him, which hindered the police investigation by putting them so far behind the suspects.
Secondly is a willingness to “be a good witness,” the officers said. Honings said he was shocked that there wasn’t a single cell phone video of Doffing’s beating, even though three other people were with the suspect and stood by when he beat Doffing. One of those three, Honings said, reportedly even tried to pull the suspect off of Doffing at one point, but still no one from the scene came forward to help the Sheriff’s Station
Not only did the Sheriff’s Station representatives request that citizens report more crime-related information, they also asked them to change the way they report that information, agreeing with a resident who said the fastest way to get help isn’t by walking to the station house, but rather by calling the 911 emergency number.
“In one of the attacks that happened, the two men walked over to the counter [at the Sheriff’s station], and for some reason they thought it was like Cedars-Sinai’s Emergency Room concierge service,” one resident said, barely half-joking. “I think it would be better to educate people that when something’s happening to immediately dial 911. People should just start dialing immediately so the Sheriffs can be aware that something’s going on and possibly catch this person.”
At the end of the meeting, residents in the audience raised individual concerns, with one recurring theme — an old tune: that deputies, despite public statements from Honings that they’ve been instructed to treat citizens with issues as a top priority, offer little help when residents actually do call in with tips and needs.
For example, a woman at the meeting said she reported repeated suspicious activity near her home — a transient man checking for unlocked door knobs up and down her street who one day began arriving on her block in a very expensive car, which she believed may have been stolen and which he appeared to be driving while intoxicated. But, she said, when she asked the Sheriff’s Station to check if the car’s license plate was that of a stolen vehicle and come look into the transient she says the response was that there was “nothing they could do” and that if she saw the man again to call again and “maybe they’d come if they weren’t busy with something else.”
A group of seven tenants of an apartment building on the Eastside of West Hollywood near Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue complained about the Sheriff’s Station’s response to their complaints about a group of five transients. The residents said the transients were sleeping and leaving used drug syringes in their driveway nightly, using lockers meant for residents as storage containers for their clothes, alcohol and drugs, and, on occasion, even slipping into the apartment building before the door was closed and locked. The tenants said the response they received from the Sheriff’s Station was that “homelessness is not a crime,” and that they felt like the needs of West Hollywood’s Eastside residents were being ignored.
“There’s a disconnect between what you’re telling your deputies and how they treat us, because when we call, we’re the problem,” said one of the tenants. “I called about suspicious behavior and a possible breaking-and-entering, and I got a lecture on the socio-economic plight of homelessness.”
“An issue that affects many of our city’s needs — not just public safety — is communication.” Horvath said before entering the event to explain why she hosted it. “This is an opportunity to establish new protocols, to see what information can be made more transparent, and, if that information can’t be made available to the public, to explain why.”
“I think this was a very good start,” Smith said, adding that if they held another such forum his only change would be for he and Honings to appear out of uniform. “I think next time we could be in our casual clothes and still be representatives of the Sheriff’s Department. That could be more low-key and relatable, because we’re a part of the community as well.”