Advertisement
Share

Vernon Sees His Police Ambitions Fading : LAPD: Gates’ top aide is taking a buffeting in storm over his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despondent over attacks on him and the Los Angeles Police Department, embattled Assistant Police Chief Robert L. Vernon decided one recent day that he was ready to retire and move to Montana.

But that night Vernon and his wife read several verses from the Bible, which they do every night before bed. A scriptural passage from Matthew spoke directly to him, Vernon said, imploring him to stay: “Your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts. . . .”

The story, told by Vernon during an April sermon at his church in the San Fernando Valley, provides a telling glimpse into the increasingly stormy life of the city’s second-most powerful police official.

Three months after the police beating of Rodney G. King thrust Chief Daryl F. Gates into an unprecedented political maelstrom, the chief’s top deputy now finds himself in a career-threatening controversy of his own, making his dream of succeeding Gates increasingly remote.

“My reputation is going down the tube,” an emotional and visibly shaken Vernon said during an interview in his Parker Center office. “Without divine intervention, I am all through as far as my career.”

Advertisement

A 37-year LAPD veteran, Vernon is under investigation for allegedly allowing his fundamentalist Christian beliefs to influence his running of the department. Vernon has denounced the investigation, ordered by the city’s Police Commission, as a “witch hunt” and has complained to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Compounding his problems, Vernon last month also suffered a humiliating public rebuke in a lawsuit filed against him by political activist Michael Zinzun, who said Vernon had undermined his bid for public office by spreading information that the assistant chief obtained through a Police Department computer.

The jurors sided with Zinzun, saying they did not believe Vernon’s version of the events. The verdict cost taxpayers nearly $4 million in damages. The panel also ordered Vernon to pay $10,000 out of his own pocket because of what they concluded was malice on his part.

The controversy swirling around Vernon is being largely fanned by one of his longtime adversaries, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who called on the Police Commission to launch the investigation, which is being conducted by Gates.

“I am David and he is Goliath,” Vernon said when asked about the councilman. “I guess he can throw his spears at me and I have got to take it.”

Much of the debate has focused on a series of religious audiotapes Vernon has recorded over the past two decades, condemning homosexuality, declaring men as “the leader” of women and advocating corporal punishment of children. He further armed his detractors when he recently disclosed in a Christian magazine that he had consulted with church elders before deciding to arrest anti-abortion protesters two years ago.

Although reports about Vernon’s religious beliefs and their possible effect on the department surfaced four years ago, they went largely unnoticed or unheeded by the city’s elected officials.

But with the political uproar over the March 3 beating of King, some say it was just a matter of time before scrutiny of Gates extended to his second-in-command.As assistant chief for operations, Vernon has responsibility for more than 80% of the department, overseeing the day-to-day running of its 18 police stations and the deployment of all uniformed personnel--including those involved in the King incident.

“Assistant Chief Vernon’s religious views have been known before, but the Rodney King incident has opened up a Pandora’s box in terms of the need to carefully scrutinize the department from top to bottom,” said John Mack, president of the Urban League.

In requesting the Police Commission probe, Yaroslavsky cited anonymous allegations of unfair treatment of gays and lesbians within the department.

“When one’s views interfere with one’s ability to perform official duties fairly and without bias, it is no longer a personal matter, but a matter of public policy,” Yaroslavsky told the commission.

“I am bending over backwards not to infringe on his civil rights and his freedom of religion,” Yaroslavsky added in an interview. “But I am also going to stand up for people who feel suppressed in their promotional opportunities based on his views.”

The investigation has shaken Vernon and his supporters, who question the appropriateness of a government inquiry into what they regard as a private matter. “If it is my Christianity today, tomorrow could it be your lodge membership, or your atheism, or your Catholicism?” Vernon asked.

Some Vernon supporters have also questioned Yaroslavsky’s motives. Associate Pastor Lance Quinn of Grace Community Church--where Vernon is an elder--said the assistant chief has been targeted by “liberals” because he holds views that “would not be tolerable to the pro-liberal agenda” if he were to succeed Gates.

“Even though Bob’s views may be seen as Victorian or outdated, the fact of the matter is Bob and the Bible have not moved--society has,” Quinn said. “We are just trying to hold to the standard that God has asked us to uphold.”

Jeff White, director of Operation Rescue of California, a group that shares Vernon’s anti-abortion views but clashed with him over demonstrations at abortion clinics in 1989, agreed that the criticisms of Vernon are politically motivated.

“No one would like to see Bob Vernon out as much as I would,” White said. “The man oversaw the beating of (our members). But he should be released for his actions as a police officer, not for his religious beliefs.”

The bad feelings between between Vernon and Yaroslavsky date back to the early 1980s, after the LAPD was accused of gathering intelligence on law-abiding citizens and groups.

In 1983, Vernon led an all-out assault by the Police Department on a proposal by Yaroslavsky for a freedom of information law, which the councilman hoped would give people access to information about them in police and city files. The City Council approved the new law, but only after bowing to Vernon’s demands to place strong limits on public access to police information.

It was a bitter defeat for Yaroslavsky, who was publicly accused by Vernon of demonstrating a “lack of integrity” during the council debate. Vernon described Yaroslavsky’s behavior as “a shameful thing” for a city official.

“He has been a very worthy adversary of mine,” Yaroslavsky said this week. “I would rather go up against other people than Bob Vernon. But this is not about him personally.”

Vernon--whose father was a Los Angeles police officer and who now has a son on the force--has written and sermonized widely about the importance of his faith in his police work. He is a lay minister at Grace Community Church, has served for years as a Police Department chaplain, and lectures regularly on ethics at the Police Academy.

Several former and current employees said there is a subtle flavor of the Scriptures in almost everything he does.

“There was never any confusion as to whether or not Bob Vernon was a born-again Christian,” said Lorne Kramer, a former LAPD commander who retired three months ago to become police chief in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I think it is just such an integral part of who he is, and what he is all about, many times his personal beliefs would intertwine, like a tapestry, with his professional beliefs. . . . But I don’t recall any instance where his judgment was clouded because of his religious convictions.”

Vernon said he brings traditional biblical values such as integrity, fairness and loyalty to his job, but he said religion otherwise stays outside the office. He rents a post office box for church-related mail, and he pays a private secretary to handle his religious phone calls, appointments and correspondence.

But Vernon’s critics say that is not enough. They charge that “Reverend Bob,” as Vernon is derisively known by some in the department, oversteps the separation between church and state, allowing his beliefs to influence his running of the department. Some say his views have created an atmosphere of intolerance in the department.

“I don’t necessarily say that where there is smoke there is fire. But I would say that where there is smoke you always investigate to find out whether or not there is fire, " said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Several police officials said Vernon’s high visibility in the fundamentalist Christian world has invited some of his problems. Intended or not, his religious beliefs have led to speculation among staffers about how to advance their careers. Most of them involve sharing Vernon’s faith or “being seen” at Grace Community Church.

“People who have never set foot inside a church in their whole lives go when he is speaking,” said one department source. “They think it is a good way to get promoted.”

The recent interest in Vernon’s religious beliefs began with the publication in the May issue of Los Angeles magazine of remarks he made in the early 1970s on a series of six religious tapes now being sold through his church in Sun Valley.

Entitled “The True Masculine Role,” the tapes have been widely distributed in the fundamentalist Christian community and are part of a continuing collection of Vernon’s sermons and lectures. The story about Vernon’s thoughts of retirement, for instance, was recorded in April and is available for $2.50.

Questions about the tapes and Vernon’s religious beliefs also appeared in a 1987 article in The Times that quoted union officials as saying that fundamentalist Christians had been given favorable consideration when applying for promotions and transfers. After the article was published, the Police Commission directed Gates to issue a policy statement prohibiting religion from influencing police activities.

George V. Aliano, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said there are still “grumblings” among some in the department about alleged favoritism toward Christians, but he has not received a formal complaint since 1987. That year, an officer wrote an anonymous letter to the league’s monthly newspaper alleging that between 20 and 30 on-duty uniformed officers attended a two-hour Sunday service a year earlier at Grace Community Church because Vernon was preaching.

Sgt. Gregory Dust said in a recent interview that he and several other officers in the Foothill Division were asked during roll call to attend the service, during which the church honored police officers by distributing Bibles and small flashlights “to light the way.”

Dust said nobody volunteered from the division, so his lieutenant directed several rookies to attend. Dust’s partner was among those drafted for the service, he said, leaving him to patrol his beat alone.

Police spokesman Cmdr. Robert S. Gil said an investigation into the incident in 1987 found “nothing inappropriate,” but he declined to elaborate citing confidentiality of personnel matters. Vernon said that he “had nothing to do with getting officers” to attend the service and described it as another “phony allegation” by his critics.

“I think the church is the right place to talk about morality,” he said. “I don’t think I should talk morality from a bully pulpit of assistant chief of police.”

GATES TESTIFIES: Chief Gates, aides testify before Christopher Commission. B1


Advertisement