It was an uncommon sight, reflecting an uncommon partnership: Three police officers and about 14 gay men, most clad in leather, together walking the dimly lit streets of Silver Lake.
The two groups collaborated Friday night to patrol the community's gay bars, which homosexuals complain are common sites for "gay-bashing," violence against homosexuals because of their sexual orientation. Police and gay community leaders say they hope it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Or a friendship, period.
"I definitely think it represents progress," said Mark Haskins, an organizer of the Silverlake Neighborhood Action Patrol (SNAP), a 1-year-old, struggling effort to deploy volunteer patrollers about once a month in hopes of curbing gay-bashing. "It's two groups that have a history of adversarial relationships, going into a new era of commitment to licking the problem of gay-bashing."
Friday night's foot patrol marked the first time in Silver Lake that police and gay activists have directly joined forces to address attacks on homosexuals. Northeast Division police officers accompanied SNAP volunteers on a late-night trek through Sunset Junction, a graffiti-scarred area around Sunset, Santa Monica and Griffith Park boulevards and Fountain Avenue.
Bill Capobianco formed SNAP in February, 1989, after a homosexual employee of his Silver Lake clothes store was beaten after leaving a bar.
In the beginning, the patrol was heavily supported and volunteers walked the streets every weekend, said Capobianco. But after a few months, support waned. And last year, after one patrol was shot at with an air gun that shoots paint balls--usually used with protective clothing in mock war games--and another was harassed by a gang, volunteers became less willing to participate.
Now, many volunteers, including Haskins, say they will not patrol Silver Lake unless police accompany the group.
The patrons of Sunset Junction's five bars say they long have been the target of assaults, verbal abuse, intimidation or derogatory graffiti. One study shows such incidents may be on the rise. The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Rights, in a report released in February, recorded 86 hate crimes last year against homosexuals. That number was up 41% from 1988, and two-thirds of the incidents involved assaults, the study found.
Most gay advocates said even that number is conservative, because many incidents are never reported to authorities. The Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood, which operates a hot line for gay-bashing victims, last year received about 170 complaints. Many of those involved incidents in Silver Lake, center officials said, but they could not give specific figures.
However, "gay-bashing" is an elusive subject, difficult to define or quantify. About one-third of the incidents reported to the gay and lesbian center were complaints about police who homosexuals considered overzealous in their patrols of gay bars for health and safety violations.
Northeast Division police, on the other hand, do not perceive gay-bashing as a major problem.
Officer Ben Lee, whose beat includes the Sunset Junction area, said he cannot remember the last time he received a gay-bashing complaint.
In fact, police seldom receive complaints about the Silver Lake bars, he said, and generally leave them alone. "They pretty much take care of their own and kind of police themselves," Lee said.
"The only reports I get," he said, are complaints from homeowners about homosexuals "cruising in cars or walking around in neighborhoods after the bars close."
Northeast Division officers are instructed to make a note on their reports any time racial or sexual hatred is a motive in a crime.
"I haven't seen a huge number of those incidents occurring," said Detective Rob Watters, who reviews those reports. "I think there was one I was aware of in the last six months. There was one in Rampart," the adjoining police division, he said. "I don't see it as a huge problem in the Northeast area at this time."
Homosexuals are reluctant to report the attacks to police--often because they don't believe their complaints will be taken seriously, said Donna Wade, co-chairperson of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Police Advisory Task Force.
Police and gay advocates in the past have also disagreed on what constitutes gay-bashing. When Mario Martinez, 26, was shot between the eyes on Feb. 28, 1987, and robbed of his leather jacket after he left a Silver Lake bar, the gay community angrily demanded protection from gay-bashing. But police considered it a random robbery, not a homosexual-targeted crime.
Another difficulty in quantifying gay-bashing, even members of the gay community agree, is that the assailants are sometimes homosexuals themselves, who are picked up at Silver Lake bars or on the "cruise" and who beat their partners after going home with them. The county commission's study found that more gay-bashing incidents occurred in residences than in public or at places of business.