A decades-old debate over the hiring and treatment of homosexual police officers has erupted behind closed doors in the Los Angeles City Council, pitting Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and his allies on the council against a bloc of council members who want to settle a historic gay-rights lawsuit.
In lengthy private sessions before the council, Gates has adamantly opposed nearly every aspect of a settlement proposal that would make the 8,000-member department the first in the country to have a written policy mandating the recruitment and promotion of homosexuals, sources said.
Gates' opposition has fueled the debate within the council, sources said, slowing negotiations that could take months.
"Some of us are recognizing the historic significance of this case," said Councilman Michael Woo, who has assumed the lead role in negotiations over the case. "It's a way of making some progress on the legacy of bitter relations between the gay community and the Police Department."
The proposed settlement was offered to the city several months ago by attorneys for Mitchell Grobeson, a former Los Angeles police sergeant who filed suit against the department two years ago, claiming that he was harassed because he is homosexual.
At times, Grobeson said, fellow officers refused to come to his aid during life-threatening situations and called him a derogatory name at roll calls.
As part of the proposed settlement, Grobeson is seeking a policy that encourages the hiring and promotion of homosexuals as well as protections from retaliation for officers who disclose their homosexuality.
He also wants to be returned to the force with back pay and made an official liaison for homosexual recruitment.
Gates is said to be particularly adamant in his refusal to automatically rehire Grobeson, saying he does not deserve "special treatment," a source close to the negotiations said. Instead, Gates wants Grobeson to apply for a job like any other candidate, the source added.
Early on, one source said, some council members thought progress toward a settlement was being made when Assistant Chief Jesse Brewer told the lawmakers that the department would agree to rehire Grobeson.
But when Gates appeared at another council session, the source said, the chief strongly opposed the rehiring of Grobeson and other demands, dividing the council and creating a stalemate in the negotiations.
Gates refused to discuss the matter Wednesday, saying he could not reveal the details of executive sessions.
However, sources familiar with the discussions said Gates also objects to establishing an "aggressive outreach program" to recruit homosexuals. Such a program would include placing advertisements in gay and lesbian publications and setting up recruitment tables at gay and lesbian street fairs.
In 1983, after months of negotiations with the homosexual community, the Police Commission--a civilian panel appointed by the mayor to oversee the department--suggested a similar outreach policy, but Gates objected and it was never put in place.
Gates is also described by a knowledgeable source as being "unmovable" on another key settlement demand: that he formally acknowledge that the Police Department systematically discriminated against homosexuals in the past.
Grobeson, who is now a police captain in a Northern California city, had been a rising star in the LAPD, where he served for nearly seven years before resigning in 1988. First in his class at the Los Angeles Police Academy, he received special commendations for jobs well done and was quickly promoted to sergeant. But rumors began circulating about his homosexuality, and on-the job harassment followed, according to documents filed in the lawsuit.
Grobeson's lawyer, Dan Stormer, also filed documents citing a memo written by Deputy Chief Robert L. Vernon in 1976, in which he refers to homosexuals as "emotionally sick." The memo said that to maintain public trust in the department, "disqualification of police applicants based on substantial homosexual conduct must be continued."
The city attorney's office has denied the allegations in court papers.
Council members would not publicly discuss the lengthy executive sessions on the matter, but several described the proceedings on the condition that their names not be used.
Of the 15 council members, four to six are leaning toward approving the settlement, with about the same number against it and several undecided, the source said. Eight votes are required for approval.
Senior Assistant City Atty. Frederick N. Merkin said Wednesday that while Gates' opinion is important, "the final say in terms of litigation and settling this is with the City Council."