If Chris Hicks has a good Friday night, someone will try to beat him up.
In a sleeveless shirt and jeans, Hicks will stroll for hours up and down West Hollywood’s stretch of popular gay bars--one more target for the thugs who come to town to toss insults and eggs and sometimes even go after gays with chains and baseball bats.
Hicks is not gay. He is an undercover sheriff’s deputy and tonight he is one of four officers used as bait in an unusual 2-month-old effort by the city and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to catch attackers in the act of a hate crime that most often goes unreported and unpunished.
The more than 50 cases of verbal and physical attacks on gays tallied by West Hollywood sheriff officials last year are believed to be just a fraction of actual incidents.
Hicks and partner Dennis Salazar try to be conspicuous prey until after the Santa Monica Boulevard bars close at 2 a.m. They hang out at a busy corner where stopped traffic might yield a taunt or worse. They meet the eyes of passengers and hold a gaze that lasts just a tick too long for some people.
They and another pair of decoys not far away are trailed all night by plainclothes deputies who are in radio communication with rented observation vans parked nearby. Two chase cars are also close at hand for word of any attack.
The undercover stings--this is the third--will soon be supplemented by a city-sponsored civilian patrol still being organized. Both strategies, modeled on a campaign in Long Beach, are a part of West Hollywood’s response to complaints that the Sheriff’s Department has not taken the crime seriously enough in a city with a large homosexual population and a flood of gay and lesbian visitors on weekends.
A hate-crime specialist who works for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti accompanied Friday’s operation to see if the program should be adopted by other law-enforcement agencies.
It’s not hard to find gays who have been on the receiving end of brickbats or real bats. John Heilman, a gay councilman who decided to tag along with Friday’s sting operation, had been egged on Santa Monica Boulevard only a week earlier. Experts say typical gay bashings are not well-planned, and are carried out by young men from outside the city who know little about gays.
As the Friday night crowd swells and the disco music thumps from open bar doors, John Shields, a wiry ex-Air Force officer who is the project’s unofficial gay adviser, flits among the street decoys like a mother duck, constantly trying to get them not to congregate and to loosen up their cop walks. He has already warned them about ogling women.
There is no need for the decoys to act flamboyant for their would-be attackers. Salazar, chomping on a fat Cuban cigar and wearing baggy shorts, a loose shirt and high-top sneakers, looks like he’s at the factory picnic.
“We don’t tell them how to dress. We don’t tell them how to walk,” Shields said. “Our feeling in this is, you’re a target in the street if you’re a single man or if you’re a woman. (Gay bashers) are not going to look and say ‘He looks gay and he doesn’t.’ ”
The undercover deputies find action when they least expect it. Only minutes after setting out, Hicks and Salazar walk into a sidewalk scuffle between a store clerk and a man suspected of using a stolen credit card. The deputies are forced to blow their own cover to sort out the mess, which ends only after the deputies wrestle the man to the ground to keep him from escaping.
The confrontation also means the deputies have paperwork to do at the station, temporarily derailing their portion of the sting. The folks in the observation van--a deputy, a sergeant, Heilman, a city staffer and two more advisers from the gay community--munch cookies and listen for radioed instructions from the other van a block off the boulevard.
The wait is interrupted by a report that a car full of youths is circling the block--possible bashers. It turns out to be a false alarm, as do a couple of more alerts. The sergeant passes out more brownies.
Hicks and Salazar are back in time for the strip’s two peak hours, when the sidewalks are bursting with boisterous club-hoppers and vendors. In the two earlier operations, closing time was when decoys got the most verbal abuse from passing cars.
The two deputies end up hanging out at Robertson Avenue, where a stoplight promises motorists to gaze at and, maybe, someone bold enough to jump out and come after them. There are glares from some car windows and a few audible anti-gay epithets delivered from passengers. But no one attacks. A couple of pedestrians seem interested, but the deputies have heard better come-ons.
“Getting hit on is weird,” Hicks says.
Both deputies seem impatient with an operation that lasts so long and requires a dozen deputies, two sergeants, civilian observers and two squad cars. In three stings there have been no arrests. The pair would rather be chasing robbers.
“This is looking for a needle in a haystack,” Salazar says. “I want to catch somebody. I don’t want to just sit out here.”
Others have different criticisms of the operation, which so far has targeted two sections of the boulevard, though the idea is generally well-received.
“You’re not going to get bashed on Santa Monica Boulevard. You’re going to get bashed in one of the alleys,” said Jim Koran as he minded the door at Revolver, a gay bar near Larrabee Street. “You’re not going to get bashed in front of 50,000 people.” He said a former club manager was attacked on a darkened side street after leaving the bar a few months back, prompting a safety meeting for employees.
The same point is made during the deputies’ 2:30 a.m. debriefing after the operation. Some deputies call for more black-and-whites to stop suspicious vehicles on the side streets, a strategic shift from simply waiting for an attack. Sgt. Michelle Debus, who coordinated the sting program, agrees. She says the next operation will include more cars, a blend of prevention and the decoys.
Though one deputy complains the effort is merely a public-relations show, boosters say that is just the point: letting residents and merchants know the city combats gay-bashing and warning hooligans that their intended victim may be a cop.
And, if only for an occasional evening, the program also has put heterosexual deputies in the shoes of gays who have endured abuse for years.
“It’s helped me in some ways, I guess,” Hicks says. “It’s made me more sensitive--I hate to use the word sensitive . Empathy, that’s the word.”