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Panel Will Hear Claims of Abuse by Deputies : West Hollywood Board Won't Have Investigative Power

September 07, 1989|RON RUSSELL | Times Staff Writer

After months of wrangling, the West Hollywood City Council has approved a five-member Public Safety Commission that will, among other things, hear allegations of abuse on the part of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.

By a unanimous vote Tuesday, the five-member council passed an ordinance empowering the panel to hear complaints and make policy recommendations to the City Council concerning law enforcement and other public safety issues. Commissioners will be appointed by council members.

Although no timetable was established, city officials said they expect the panel to begin meeting by the end of the year.

The action was a victory for councilmen Steve Schulte and Paul Koretz, who pressed for and received several key changes in the ordinance which they said were aimed at making the Sheriff's Department more accountable to gays and other groups.

Complaints From Gays

The Sheriff's Department provides police protection to West Hollywood--where an estimated 35% of the 37,000 residents are gay--under an $8.6-million annual contract that expires next year.

Although city officials have praised the Sheriff's Department for its crime-fighting abilities, gays have frequently complained to the City Council of being harassed by deputies.

Officially, the commission's principal assignment will be to make recommendations on law enforcement, fire, seismic and other safety issues. It will have no authority to investigate alleged abuses by deputies.

Schulte and Koretz called for the panel's creation in May, and the council quickly approved the idea in concept. Since then, most of the attention concerning the panel has focused on the prospect of providing gays and others who allege abuse by deputies with a public forum for their complaints.

"There is obviously only so much the commission will be able to do," Koretz said. "But, frankly, just the fact that complaints are aired publicly will create a tremendous amount of accountability on the part of the Sheriff's Department."

Despite the unanimous vote in May to create the panel, council members have frequently disagreed on what the commission's role should be.

Size Reduced

Councilman John Heilman and Mayor Abbe Land have expressed concern that, if structured improperly, the commission could create more problems than it solves.

Heilman, especially, has expressed reservations about the panel becoming a forum "where all we do is dump on the (deputies)." And, referring to the commission's lack of authority to investigate complaints, Land has maintained that the panel could be counterproductive if it "raises people's expectations unnecessarily."

At the mayor's suggestion, the size of the commission was reduced from seven to five. For a time, she and Heilman expressed interest in appointing members of a Sheriff's Department-sponsored Neighborhood Watch organization to fill seats on the commission.

In approving the commission in concept, the council in May directed City Manager Paul Brotzman to work out the details of how the commission is to function.

But gay rights activists were upset with the language of the draft ordinance Brotzman presented to the City Council on Tuesday, saying that it threatened to "emasculate" the ordinance as originally intended.

"This (draft) looks more like a bureaucratic protection act," said Steve Smith, a member of the city's Planning Commission. "This is a boat that's got to be rocked." He was among 15 gay rights activists who spoke in favor of changes proposed by Schulte and Koretz.

Among other things, Schulte and Koretz pushed for language spelling out the commission's authority to "(hear) all complaints received by the city regarding law enforcement," in addition to merely being able to analyze and evaluate law enforcement needs, as contained in the draft version.

Eliminated from the draft presented by Brotzman was a so-called sunset clause, under which the commission would have expired after a year unless the council voted to have it continue. Schulte called the provision "unusual inasmuch as other commissions do not have sunset clauses."

Heilman proposed that commission members be appointed on an at-large basis, instead of each council member being allowed to appoint a member for a four-year term, saying that "individual appointments tend to be more divisive."

However, the council settled on individual appointments, with the provision that any appointee have the support of at least three of the five council members.

Heilman and others have long been concerned that the panel could become a forum for political grandstanding by individual commissioners eager to grab attention at the expense of the Sheriff's Department, which Heilman has frequently praised as providing excellent over-all police service.

Schulte and Koretz, on the other hand, have been more critical of the department. In calling for the creation of the Public Safety Commission, they accused the department of not doing enough to improve its image in the gay community.

Of 22 complaints of ill treatment against sheriff's deputies filed with the city last year, many of them involving gays, only one resulted in a deputy being reprimanded. The rest were determined by the Sheriff's Department to be unsubstantiated.

In 1987, the city hired a public safety coordinator to serve as a liaison with the Sheriff's Department. The coordinator, a retired Sheriff's Department captain, resigned in April, and the post has remained unfilled.

Because the coordinator had no authority to investigate complaints, gay activists and others frequently complained that the arrangement was useless. City officials have indicated that they may consider appointing a new public safety coordinator to work with the new commission in the future. No money for the job was included in the budget for the current fiscal year.

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