I always felt that John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was hopelessly naïve, but it never ceased to inspire. In these days when the streets are awash with angry and hopeful demonstrators, we are being asked to re-imagine law enforcement.
Those calls are easy to dismiss; demands to defund law enforcement and reallocate funds to social services seem unrealistic. We are quick to dismiss radically changing law enforcement as we know it because this is all we know. It has been pounded into our heads since we were children that a heavily armed, quasi-military presence is the only thing that will guarantee the safety of our homes and insure we are not murdered in our beds.
But you only have to look around to wonder if all that is necessarily true. How many times have you seen five or six Sheriff’s SUVs careening down Santa Monica responding to a call that a homeless person is passed out on the sidewalk? Frankly I have lost count. With a $20 million price tag for Sheriffs’ services, looking at other alternatives just seems prudent.
Undoubtedly there is an occasional need for an armed response. But most calls are not for violent crimes in progress, such as murders, assaults or robberies. So if law enforcement is dealing with a neighbor to neighbor dispute, arresting a shop lifter or pulling over a speeding driver, why do you need a heavily armed response?
I suppose that if you were taken hostage by a knife-wielding assailant you might need an armed response. But that does not mean you should call the Sheriff. After all that was the situation a couple of years back on Palm Avenue. When two young men escaped their hostage taker, they ran out of the upper unit apartment screaming “don’t shoot.” The deputies inexplicably opened fire, killing one man and wounding the other. This was despite the fact that a deputy with a bean bag gun was on the scene so the deputies could have deployed less than deadly force. It is unclear why the deputies felt threatened in the first place. Needless to say this tragic farce cost the county tax payers, (you and me), millions of dollars. Certainly it calls into question if we are any safer just because we have a local SWAT team at our disposal.
Then there is the tragic case of the intoxicated man who in Georgia who fell asleep in his car while in a Wendy’s drive through. Supposedly he grabbed an officer’s taser and tried to run away. He was shot and killed because the officer thought the man might taser him. That is assuming a drunk could figure out how to use a taser. But does the threat of being tazed the equivalent to being shot to death? Would you let yourself get tazed rather than kill someone? What would have happened had law enforcement let the guy run away? They had his car. This guy was going to have to explain to his wife the next morning why the car was not in the driveway. Eventually he would have to come in and if he failed to re-claim it, what would be the great issue? His impounded car would have been sold which may have been punishment enough for the crime of falling asleep in his car. There had to be a better way to handle this situation.
We often hear that law enforcement is viewed as an army of occupation in poor neighborhoods. If you want to change that perception, perhaps a rather minor reform would be to stop allowing law enforcement to ape the military. Our Sheriff refers to his staff as his “troops”. His collar is loaded with stars as if he were Gen. Douglas McArthur, and he is often just as arrogant and pompous. The ranks of the deputies mirror the military as do their uniforms. It is difficult to change attitudes when the uniform reflects an “in the trenches” warrior mentality. The notion of the “thin blue line” has become outdated and counter productive.
The very character of West Hollywood was shaped by law enforcement, or at least the lack thereof. In the 1920s the sleepy rail depot of Sherman transformed itself into playground of the stars, the bohemian and the underworld. The enactment of Prohibition in 1919 was coupled with the lack of Sheriffs’ presence in our tiny enclave, whose most endearing trait was that we were outside the city limits of Los Angeles and thus outside the jurisdiction of the LAPD. A combination of benign neglect and corruption allowed the Strip to flourish. Prohibition created the Sunset Strip and city’s free wheeling traditions.
After WWII gay bars flourished in West Hollywood as the Sheriffs’ department undoubtedly benefited from protection payoffs which seemed benign compared to the LAPD’s overtly homophobic mindset. It was not that the Sheriff’s Department was a particularly less homophobic organization, it was simply more practical.
But the question of who polices the police has plagued West Hollywood since we incorporated in 1984.
While West Hollywood bars were not as susceptible to raids as gay bars in Los Angeles, when the city was incorporated the Sheriff was still far from a progressive bastion of law enforcement. In the early 1990s Bruce Boland was a closeted Sheriff’s deputy. But back then one’s sexual orientation was always an issue of interest, and once the Department figured out Boland was gay his days as a deputy were numbered. After years of petty harassment and lack of back up, he was set up and charged with an illegal arrest of a drug dealer at Danny’s Oki Dog’s, a notorious hustler hang out on the Eastside. Boland was fired.
The demand for Boland’s reinstatement became a rallying cry for community activists. John Duran represented Boland in his suit against the Sheriff’s Department while I represented him in his lawsuit against his union, ALADS, which failed to provide for his legal defense during his suspension hearings. While Council members John Heilman and Abbe Land constantly assured us that they were “working behind the scenes,” their lack of public pressure on the Sheriff’s Department under cut our efforts to get Boland reinstated. This was just one early example of how our “progressive” City Council has historically been reticent to confront the Sheriffs Department.
Eventually Boland was reinstated and returned to patrol in West Hollywood. Approximately a year later Boland succumbed to AIDS. The maudlin plaque in the West Hollywood station does nothing to celebrate the courage of his pioneering stance.
Even the rainbow logos marking our patrol cars were subject to controversy. Created by Charlie Makinney, our late city manager, in the late 90s, the appearance of the logos was ecstatically greeted by the community. Unfortunately, our deputies were teased when they went to other jurisdictions and, without notifying the city, the logos were being quietly removed. I was alerted to this by a volunteer at the station and it was confirmed by a deputy.
But when I raised the issue, the City Council refused to confront the Sheriff on this issue. My motion to demand the reinstatement of the logos was defeated in a four-to-one vote, even though we had a four-person gay majority. The City Council was simply not going to confront the Sheriff’s Department. But I was not defeated. The community outrage was swift and furious. The logos quickly returned, but it was hardly one of the City Council’s greatest moments.
Does anyone seriously believe that our City Council is serious about policing the police? Every attempt by the Public Safety Commission to create some sort of accountability is inevitably quashed. The City Council has abdicated oversight responsibility. ALADS, the union for the Sheriff’s deputies, bases its political endorsements on a lack of vigilance and has thus transformed most of the City Council into a cheer leading section for the Sheriff’s Department. In West Hollywood, when it comes to law enforcement oversight, silence equals re-election. We deserve better.
I am not anti-Sheriff. I have friends who are deputies, and I have represented scores of deputies in my family law practice. I have great respect for most deputies I have interacted with over the last 30-plus years from COPPS team leader Jimmy Ferrell to Lt. Bill Moulder. Back in 1992, when there was a ballot measure to create a West Hollywood Police Department, I was a co-spokesperson along with Abbe Land, for “Save Our Sheriff.”
But when you take the long view, how our community has been policed is largely depends upon who is captain. I have seen over a dozen captains over the decades and they range from the highly engaged to the mediocre. I would rate Bill Magnin, who was captain here in the late 1990s, as one of the best, and he played a huge role in cleaning up the Eastside. His quiet competency and professional integrity somehow made him a threat to the clique around Sheriff Lee Baca, and Bill was essentially drummed out of the department. I liked Lynda Castro who was genuine in her care for this community. We are currently lucky to have a proactive leader in Ed Ramirez, and we have seen important restructuring in how the Sheriff patrols our community under his leadership.
But the quality and professionalism of the services we receive from the Sheriffs Department should not be subject to who happens to be captain.
West Hollywood is in a unique position to experiment with a new type of community-based law enforcement. We are a relatively safe community where people walk their dogs after 11 p.m. Not to make light of our issues, but often they are more quality of life than public safety. We don’t have to get rid of the Sheriff, at least not immediately. But we could create a parallel organization within City Hall, a new Community Safety Division, that could take over much of the policing from the Sheriff and ultimately allow us to replace the Sheriff with a community-oriented entity.
I would love to have a community-based law enforcement organization that is long on humanism and short on intimidation. We are long past the notion that banning choke holds and more sensitivity training will suffice.
West Hollywood could have law enforcement conducted by professionals that are lightly armed or even unarmed to patrol our streets, much as our Security Ambassadors do now. The only difference is that these employees would have the power to arrest and issue citations. They could take over 90% of the calls from the Sheriff’s Department. They could patrol for moving violations and drunk drivers (you don’t need heavily armed deputies to issue speeding tickets.) We would have homeless specialists as part of the force. We could ensure that our organization had less focus on use of force and more on how to resolve community needs. Rather than going through a boot camp style police academy, our new patrol members would have degrees in sociology or mental health.
We could still contract with the Sheriff for jailing and investigative services. The station would remain open and continue to serve West Hollywood and Universal City. It would just that we would have a less militarized, gender-balanced organization trained to deal with the more mundane issues that confront us in West Hollywood. We could have assigned street beats so each neighborhood would know the folks who are patrolling. Law enforcement officers with intimate community ties would operate like a fish in water. I suspect that we could enhance public safety while saving millions of dollars. Our community reforms could inspire pro-active changes within the Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement across thesState.
I don’t claim to have a fully developed blueprint for change; obviously there are plenty of good ideas out in the community that could morph into a coherent plan to launch a new direction in law enforcement. But if we dismiss radical restructuring out of hand, we will miss a historic opportunity.
West Hollywood is a brave and progressive community. If the community leads, City Hall will have to follow.