The arrest of two gay men on charges of lewd conduct and the claim by a victim of a "gay-bashing" incident that deputies mistreated him have rekindled accusations that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is insensitive to West Hollywood's large gay and lesbian community.
The incidents have caused friction between the Sheriff's Department, which provides police protection to West Hollywood, and city officials, who last week questioned the handling of each episode. Both incidents occurred in December.
City Councilman Steve Schulte said he was disturbed that the arrest of a stockbroker and another man in West Hollywood Park "violated an unwritten policy," established in 1984 after West Hollywood became a city, that plainclothes deputies would not make lewd conduct arrests.
Schulte and City Manager Paul Brotzman said city officials had also spoken with Sheriff's Department officials about the complaint of a West Hollywood hairdresser who said deputies abandoned him rather than take him to a hospital after he and a companion were attacked by "gay-bashers" on the street.
Gays and lesbians make up an estimated 35% of West Hollywood's population of 37,000. They have often complained of unfair treatment by the Sheriff's Department, noting that there are no acknowledged gay or lesbian deputies.
Capt. Rachel Burgess, who assumed command of the West Hollywood sheriff's station in November, defended the use of plainclothes officers in making the arrests in the park. And she said deputies involved in the other incident "acted appropriately."
Schulte said the understanding that plainclothes officers not be used to arrest people for certain sex offenses grew out of "the widespread perception before cityhood" on the part of gays and lesbians that vice bureau officers dressed in plain clothes often were used to harass them because of their sexual orientation.
"If this represents a change in policy, it is something I think a lot people, including myself, have reason to be disturbed about," said Schulte, one of two acknowledged gay members on the five-member City Council.
However, Burgess said she was "not sure such an agreement ever existed." She said the four officers involved in the arrests are not vice officers but are part of a special unit assigned to the West Hollywood station.
"We've had numerous complaints about sexual activity in the park, including complaints from homeless people about persons trying to coerce them into sex acts," she said. "It was a simple case of law enforcement officers doing their jobs."
The two men were arrested the night of Dec. 7 in an area of the park that serves as a meeting place for gays.
"It's a place people go to cruise, the same way heterosexuals go up to Mulholland Drive or along the beach," said Barry Copilow, a lawyer for both men. "What my clients object to is the idea of using undercover officers posing as people engaged in the same kind of activities they were interested in. In that environment, it smacks of a form of harassment."
The men are scheduled for trial this week in Beverly Hills Municipal Court. Lewd conduct, a misdemeanor, carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The stockbroker, who asked not to be identified, accused deputies of entrapping him and his partner and of refusing to adequately identify themselves as police officers after placing them in custody.
"I thought we had fallen into the hands of a band of gay-bashers," he said. "I begged them to show me a badge, and one of them finally pulled up his shirt and flashed something attached to his belt that looked like it could have been an oversized belt buckle.
"We were scared to death. They handcuffed us and strapped us in the back of an obdinary-looking car. We didn't know what was going to happen."
He said that when he and his companion arrived at the spot where they were arrested, they noticed two people who turned out to be deputies "huddled together behind some bushes."
The man said a third deputy "fondled himself" and "licked his lips in a suggestive manner" as they approached the area, "sending us the clear signal that everyone was playing the same game."
"It isn't like there were any children around. This is a very private place. It was late at night. No one goes there at that hour who is not aware that it is a meeting place," he said.
In the other incident, hairdresser Steve Renteria, 27, accused deputies of forcing him and his partner out of a patrol car and abandoning them despite their being injured after the alleged attack.
Renteria said he and a friend were walking on Orange Grove Avenue near Santa Monica Boulevard shortly after midnight on Dec. 17 when several men leaped from behind some shrubs and clubbed them with blunt metal objects and called them derogatory names.