LAPD Told to Investigate Charges That Gays Are Being Harassed
Responding to concerns that Los Angeles police officers are targeting gay bars for vice enforcement and are harassing gay men and women, a member of the city’s Police Commission on Tuesday directed department officials to study arrest and raid records and report back within 30 days.
“I’m very angry at the reports I’m getting,” Commission Vice President Art Mattox, the only gay member of the civilian commission, said after the board’s meeting. “We’re missing a lot of information, and I want to see us look into this.”
During the session, commissioners heard from a top LAPD official, who firmly denied that there was any effort to target gays in vice enforcement. But they also received testimony from some members of the gay community complaining of what they feel is suspicious behavior by the department.
The issue of police treatment of gays and lesbians is a long-standing source of conflict, both in Los Angeles and in other parts of the country. For decades, the LAPD resisted hiring gay officers, fueling the department’s reputation for hostility toward gays and lesbians and heightening sensitivity when it comes to handling complaints against officers accused of homophobia.
The witnesses who testified Tuesday said rumors of stepped-up LAPD vice enforcement in gay communities are rampant, and some complained that LAPD officers are parking outside gay bars to harass patrons with epithets and scare off business. One witness said a group of men he believed to be LAPD officers shouted epithets at him as he walked toward a gay bar, but that same witness acknowledged in response to a question that he could not be sure the men who yelled at him were police.
Other witnesses said they too feared that the LAPD was stepping up vice activities in gay communities and that the department was increasing its liquor license checks of gay bars.
“The perception now is that they’re hitting gay bars,” said Richard Zaldivar, president of a Los Angeles-based AIDS project. “That’s clearly the perception.”
Cmdr. Dan Watson, the assistant commanding officer of the LAPD’s Central Bureau, said he found no evidence to support that perception in Police Department files.
Watson produced for the commission a list of recent license checks conducted by LAPD in the department’s Northeast, Rampart and Hollywood divisions, three areas with large gay populations. According to the list, officers performed roughly 450 checks in those areas; of them, only three were in bars or restaurants that Watson said he was told catered largely to gay patrons.
Rumors that the LAPD has focused inappropriate attention on gay bars are “absolutely not true,” Watson said. “No one has been directed to . . . attack the gay bars.”
As for reports that some LAPD officers have derided patrons of those establishments, Watson said he had no evidence to support those accounts.
“We don’t condone it,” he said. “We want to know about it. We want to investigate it.”
But under questioning from Mattox, the commander acknowledged that the LAPD did not keep a list of gay establishments and conceded that it was therefore hard to know precisely whether his list of license checks cast much light on the subject. Compiling such a list, Watson said, would be inappropriate and could risk violating the privacy of the owners of the bars and restaurants.
Although Mattox agreed that any such list would need to be guarded carefully, he also expressed amazement that Watson had not been able to develop a better sense of which of the establishments that was checked for license violations served gay patrons. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” the commissioner noted.
Watson responded that he would consult with the LAPD’s liaison to the gay community and try to determine whether the vice activity in recent months has had any disproportionate impact. Mattox, who credited Police Chief Willie L. Williams for helping to mend fences with the city’s gay population, asked the department to report back to the commission in 30 days.
The report will be presented in closed session in order to protect any privacy interests of bar owners or patrons, but Mattox said an edited version of the analysis will then be made public--a move he said he hoped would reassure citizens that the police are acting fairly.
“The gay community is not asking for special treatment,” Mattox said. “We are just asking for equal treatment.”