Two West Hollywood city councilmen have called for the creation of a Public Safety Commission that would be empowered to hear complaints from gays and others who allege abuses by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.
Councilmen Steve Schulte and Paul Koretz criticized the Sheriff's Department for not doing enough to improve its image with the gay community and said they will propose the commission to the City Council next Monday.
'Obviously a Problem'
"There's obviously a problem and there needs to be a mechanism set up to make sure people get the chance to be heard," Schulte said.
He and Koretz were joined by several gay activists at a news conference Tuesday at which the activists repeated their demand that the Sheriff's Department actively recruit gay and lesbian deputies.
Sheriff Sherman Block responded with a news conference of his own several hours later at which he labeled as "complete and total falsehood" the activists' accusation that the Sheriff's Department discriminates against gays.
After repeating for what he said he hoped "is the final time" that the department does not discriminate against any group in its hiring practices, the sheriff took aim at his detractors in the gay community.
"I really wonder if the same people who keep raising the issue aren't trying to create an environment where people interested in applying (as deputies) might believe we are in fact a discriminatory agency and be discouraged from applying," he said.
And he rejected the idea of a citizen review panel hearing complaints against deputies, saying that he intends to preserve the right to deal with errant deputies when problems arise.
"As long as I have the responsibility for running the department, I will keep unto myself the responsibility for dealing with those individual department members who violate established policies and procedures," he said.
If approved by the five-member council, the commission would have other duties besides hearing complaints about police matters. Officially, its principal assignment would be to make recommendations on fire, seismic and other safety issues, Schulte said. It would have no authority to investigate alleged Sheriff's Department abuses, he said.
Nonetheless, Schulte said the panel would "provide a badly needed public forum for people who feel they've been abused and who may feel that their complaints might otherwise fall between the cracks."
The Sheriff's Department provides police protection to West Hollywood--where an estimated 35% of the 37,000 residents are gay--under an $8.5-million-a-year contract that expires next year.
Although city officials have praised the Sheriff's Department for its crime-fighting abilities, gays have frequently complained to the City Council of being harassed by deputies.
Gay rights activists have decried the fact that there are no acknowledged gays among the department's more than 7,000 deputies. About 120 deputies are assigned to West Hollywood.
About 50 activists have endorsed a petition circulated by Schulte dismissing as inadequate an agreement between West Hollywood officials and the Sheriff's Department aimed at recruiting gays as deputies, calling on the department to recruit openly gay men and women as deputies.
The agreement, reached after months of negotiations, calls for the city to help coordinate the recruitment and testing of prospective deputies in the West Hollywood area. A recruitment and testing session is set for June 17 at Fairfax High School.
The arrangement was a compromise after West Hollywood officials first asked that the Sheriff's Department itself openly recruit gays and lesbians in a way similar to that in which it recruits racial and ethnic minorities.
It marks the first time the department has sought help in recruiting from any of the 38 cities it patrols.
Officials of the Sheriff's Department have denied that the recruitment plan is designed to increase the number of gays in its ranks; city officials, however, make no secret that their interest in the plan hinges on the recruitment of gays.
"I think (the department) is trying to recruit openly gay deputies, but by being so afraid to admit it, and denying it in all their statements, it takes away from the strength of the effort," Koretz said.
Responding to Block's criticisms, Koretz said: "Frankly, I think they're looking to have a source to blame if the recruitment doesn't go well."
The Sheriff's Department has long maintained that it does not discriminate against any group when it comes to hiring, and insists that its recruitment effort in West Hollywood is part of a broader effort to increase recruitment on the Westside.
However, the city's involvement has largely focused on the gay community, even as more militant gay activists have followed Schulte's lead in criticizing the Sheriff's Department, claiming that the department is "trying to have it both ways."
Block said Tuesday that he does not see a contradiction between the city's emphasis on gay recruitment and the department's insistance that the plan is part of a broader recruitment effort.
"If the city of West Hollywood is interested in encouraging people from their community to apply in larger numbers, we welcome that, whether they be gay, lesbian or straight," the sheriff said.
He said the department is "not aggressively seeking gay and lesbian applicants" the way it recruits racial and ethnic minorities "because sexual orientation is not an affirmative action consideration under the law."
Gay activists have accused the department of reneging on a commitment to place recruitment ads in the gay press and have said that recruitment posters placed at West Hollywood bus stops have no special relevance to gays.
Although city officials are responsible for recruitment advertising, the Sheriff's Department has reserved the right to say which materials may be used and where the ads may be placed.
Thus far, department officials have rejected placing ads in any gay publication, despite behind-the-scenes efforts by several city officials to persuade them to change their minds.
Asked about the matter, Block appeared to rule out placing recruitment ads in the gay press.
"I am not going to put my general recruitment ads in the gay press because I've not seen any of the gay press that has been shown to me at this point that does not contain some sexually explicit material," he said.
"It is not a question of whether it is the gay or so-called straight press. But it is the content that is the determining factor. I would not put those ads in the heterosexual press if (a publication) featured sexually explicit advertisements or information."
However, Schulte offered a different view.
"There are at least three or four publications that I can think of that do not have what even the department would characterize as sexually explicit material," he said. "So what's the problem?"