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Bible Bob, the LAPD and Freedom

Bible Bob. Reverend Bob. Chief of the God Squad.

All of these are nicknames for Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief Robert L. Vernon, the LAPD’s second-in-command, whose fundamentalist Christian beliefs have touched off an increasingly bitter controversy.

For years, the word in the department and in City Hall was that the best way to win promotions and good assignments was to accept Vernon’s religious views. As retired Assistant Chief Jesse A. Brewer put it, “He’s head of the God Squad, as we refer to it. . . . It’s commonly known that the way you get ahead as far as Vernon is concerned is to become aligned with his church or to profess that you are born again.”

In June, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky demanded that the Police Commission find out whether Vernon’s views interfered with his ability “to perform official duties fairly and without bias.” The commission ordered the Police Department to investigate. With the review still uncompleted, Vernon filed a $10-million suit early this month charging that his religious freedom was being violated.

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Some of his enemies are laughing over that one. Bible Bob, who supervised an LAPD police intelligence squad that trampled on the civil rights of political liberals, is now saying that his own civil rights are being abridged.

But Vernon’s laughing, too. Among the people he says are trodding on his rights are two of the city’s most tenacious civil libertarians, Yaroslavsky and the president of the Board of Police Commissioners, Stanley Scheinbaum.

That irony, alone, makes Vernon vs. the City of Los Angeles a fascinating case. But beyond the irony, there’s the question of his right to worship free from municipal snoopers.

It’s a guarantee fundamental to our democracy, assured by the 1st Amendment. If the City Hall bureaucrats start investigating Bible Bob’s religion, who knows where they’ll stop?

I discussed this point with one of Vernon’s lawyers.

He’s William Bentley Ball of Scranton, Pa. Ball, who is teaming up with Los Angeles attorney David Casterline, is an expert on freedom of religion. In the 1970s, he won a famous case in the U.S. Supreme Court, defending Amish who had been prosecuted by Wisconsin for refusing to send their children to public school.

The 1st Amendment, assuring religious freedom, forbids government from investigating citizens’ religious practices, Ball said. But, he added, the Vernon case began with a demand for such an inquiry--Yaroslavsky asking the Police Commission to review whether Vernon’s views “may be improperly shaping the operations and policies of the Los Angeles Police Department.”

As Ball put it in his brief: “The charter of the investigation is not to check out Chief Vernon’s performance in his job. It is to check out how his religion may relate to that performance. That means . . . that the Board (of Police Commissioners) will have to familiarize itself with his religion. It will need to know the tenets of his church and . . . whether he observes those tenets.”

What of the Jewish officer, Ball asked, “who might have unusual religious sensitivity concerning citizens whom he suspects of hate crimes?”

As we talked about that example, I thought of a hypothetical case and I asked Ball about it. What if a hate group had painted swastikas on a San Fernando Valley synagogue and the leader of that congregation happened to be the LAPD’s Valley commander? What if the commander ordered his troops to wipe out the hate group’s headquarters?

Ball said such action would obviously be illegal and should be investigated. But the investigation, he said, should not start by asking whether the commander’s religion shaped his decision.

The same holds true in the Vernon case, Ball said. If city officials believe that he is breaking the law and department regulations in the way he hires and promotes people, they should investigate those practices. But the investigation shouldn’t start with his religion.

These arguments don’t make much of an impression in City Hall, where defending Bob Vernon isn’t politically correct. Political spokesmen and spokeswomen representing gay men, lesbians and ethnic minorities have long blamed him for the heavily white male composition of the LAPD.

Vernon has also waged many battles with the council over appropriations and policy. And when Vernon fights with the council, he definitely acts as though he thinks God is on his side.

None of this will matter when the case opens in federal court here Dec. 2.

All that will matter is whether the city’s investigation is trampling on Robert Vernon’s religious freedom and his right to be Bible Bob.


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