In a surprise move, the West Hollywood City Council has authorized a study to determine how much it would cost the city to establish its own police department.
However, City Manager Paul Brotzman cautioned that the feasibility study, to be conducted by the city's administrative staff over the next two to three weeks, does not mean that the city is interested in forming its own police force.
Instead, he and other officials said they expect the study to show that West Hollywood's arrangement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for police protection is a bargain.
"It's basically a documentation exercise," Brotzman said. "It shouldn't be interpreted by the Sheriff's Department or anyone else as a first step in establishing a municipal police force."
Some gay activists, who have been critical of the Sheriff's Department and have demanded that the city explore the possibility of establishing its own force, expressed skepticism at the latest development.
"Instead of a feasibility study it sounds more like a mechanism to justify a decision that's already been made," said Jean Conger, executive director of Southern California Women for Understanding, a lesbian rights group.
"I think it's suspect to have people conducting the study who already appear to be convinced that they want to stick with the Sheriff's Department," she said.
The Sheriff's Department provides police protection to West Hollywood--where an estimated 35% of the 37,000 residents are gay--under an $8.5-million a year contract that expires next year. About 120 deputies are assigned to the city.
Although city officials have praised the department for its crime-fighting abilities, gays have frequently complained to the City Council of being harassed by deputies. And gay rights activists have decried the fact that there are no acknowledged gays among the department's more than 7,000 deputies.
About 50 gay activists, including some of the Westside's most influential gay leaders, have endorsed a petition circulated by City Councilman Steve Schulte demanding that the department recruit openly gay men and women as sheriff's deputies.
The petition dismisses as inadequate an agreement between West Hollywood officials and Sheriff's Department representatives, announced in February, aimed at recruiting gays as deputies.
Schulte, one of two acknowledged gays on the five-member City Council, broke ranks with other council members shortly after the recruitment plan was announced, calling it a "3 on a scale of 10" and saying it was "totally inadequate to deal with the problem."
Among other points, the petition calls on Sheriff Sherman Block to establish a department policy explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. And it urges that a feasibility study be conducted to determine the cost of the city's forming its own force.
Monday's motion to conduct the study, which was approved unanimously, came not from Schulte, but from Councilman John Heilman, the other acknowledged gay on the council. He has often appeared to be at odds with Schulte over the issue, preferring to work behind the scenes to persuade the Sheriff's Department to change its policies.
Even Schulte has said he is not in favor of the city trying to establish its own police force. The item was included in the petition, he said, "out of respect for the opinion of some" gay activists.
Some activists and others supportive of the Sheriff's Department have complained privately to city officials that a study conducted by outside consultants would be a waste of taxpayers' money.
In an interview, Heilman said he recommended that the city conduct its own study after concluding that the petition circulated by Schulte "misdirects a lot of energy in the community" and because "everyone on the council pretty much knows that it would not be feasible" to replace the Sheriff's Department.
"I think this (study) will give us some concrete information, so that we can focus on the real problem, (such as) with the way deputies are trained, with recruitment policies and those kinds of things," he said.
Brotzman, who is to oversee the study, said that, while he is confident "that a more detailed look at the numbers will tell us what we already know, we're not going about this from the position that we've got a great deal (with the Sheriff's Department), and we're going write up the figures to prove it."
He said that, if the study discloses "that we can, indeed, set up and operate a police force for a cost that's comparable to what we spend now, then we'll come back with a recommendation to the council that they acquire an outside consultant to explore the possibilities."