Depending on the city official, the testimony of singer John Mayer and actors Milo Ventimiglia and Eric Roberts at Los Angeles City Hall on Thursday was either a courageous stand against the dangerous tactics of the paparazzi or a foolish waste of time.
The performers were the first speakers at the inaugural meeting of a task force of elected officials, law enforcement leaders and others investigating ways to regulate what they described as an aggressive new breed of tabloid photographers.
But before the celebrity witnesses could utter a single word about paparazzi car chases or sidewalk encampments, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton had tracked down a camera crew of his own and dismissed the task force as a farce.
“If you notice, since Britney started wearing clothes, Paris is out of town and not bothering anybody anymore, thank God, and evidently Lindsay Lohan has gone gay, we don’t seem to have much of an issue,” Bratton told a reporter for KNBC-TV Channel 4.
The chief interrupted his morning workout to tell the station that existing laws were sufficient to control the paparazzi and that 90% of the problem was caused by misbehaving stars.
He also accused Councilman Dennis P. Zine, who convened the task force, of grandstanding.
Zine carried on with the hearing, insisting the chief was wrong and that current penalties for traffic violations and misdemeanors were not sufficient.
“They act like a pack of wolves, stalking their prey,” he told the task force. “What we’re trying to do is prevent a tragedy from happening.”
Later, Zine asked the mayor and the Police Commission to investigate Bratton’s comments. He cited the assessment of Lohan’s sexual orientation as particularly inappropriate. A police officer who said similar things would be investigated and possibly disciplined, Zine charged.
“I am just absolutely shocked at his obstinacy. We are trying to do something positive,” Zine said.
Bratton brushed off suggestions that his remarks were insensitive. He said that he had a long record of supporting gay rights and noted that his sister is a lesbian.
He called a news conference during Zine’s hearing to provide reporters with a list of more than 40 state and local laws that already deal with aggressive photographers.
Bratton ridiculed efforts under discussion in the hearing to register paparazzi as “like trying to herd cats.”
As the dispute between officials churned on, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and representatives from celebrity- saturated communities, including Malibu, Beverly Hills and Calabasas, listened as the famous witnesses detailed their encounters with photographers, which they described as frightening.
“Heroes” star Ventimiglia described being pursued at night through West Hollywood. At each red light, he said, three photographers would jump out of their vehicles and surround his car, blinding him with the flashes of their cameras.
Ventimiglia said he drove to a sheriff’s station but was told there was nothing authorities could do.
“I have lost a bit of confidence in the laws,” he said.
Mayer, who called himself “one of the most media-friendly celebrities around,” said reckless driving, harassment and trespassing by paparazzi make a lethal accident “not a theoretical possibility, but a situational certainty.”
“You can either name the law after what it prevents, or you can name it after the first person who is killed,” Mayer said.
He added that his mere presence was proof of the problem. “You got a rock star out of bed at 8 o’clock in the morning, so this must be important,” he said.
Roberts recalled an incident in which paparazzi surrounded him as he left a movie theater. He said he swatted at a lens and was subsequently sued. “I hope we can stop this madness,” said Roberts, who appears in the film “The Dark Knight.”
Zine said he began focusing on the issue of paparazzi after a Times story calculated the cost of Spears’ January police escort to a hospital at $25,000.
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.