Questions have been raised about whether Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates can fairly investigate allegations that Assistant Chief Robert L. Vernon's religious beliefs have improperly affected his professional judgment and operations of the Police Department.
Gates, who was ordered last week by the city's Police Commission to look into the conduct of his second-in-command, may have a conflict of his own, critics contend: Gates' wife regularly attends the San Fernando Valley church where Vernon is an elder and where he often preaches.
Sima Gates has attended Grace Community Church in Sun Valley for several years, according to church officials, and is enrolled in a home Bible study class. Among other things, Vernon has been criticized for consulting with Grace Community Church elders before deciding to arrest anti-abortion protesters in 1989 and for making audiotapes espousing his fundamentalist Christian views on homosexuality and women's rights.
Several community leaders who have been critical of the Police Department said Monday that Gates should remove himself from the investigation. John Mack, president of the Urban League, said the relationship between Sima Gates and Grace Community Church "creates a real probability of prejudice on the chief's part" toward Vernon.
"It seems to me that the responsible thing for him to do would be to allow this investigation to be conducted by independent sources," Mack said. "These are some very serious allegations. It is absolutely essential that this investigation be conducted in a manner that is above and beyond reproach."
Richard Jennings, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said Sima Gates' ties to Vernon's church create an "appearance of conflict" that could undermine public confidence in the investigation.
"Regardless of whether Gates is able to be objective, it is not going to have the appearance of being objective," Jennings said. "Given the extreme public attention on the police force and its problems lately, that is something that Chief Gates should be trying to avoid."
Gates could not be reached for comment, but his spokesman, Cmdr. Robert S. Gil, said Sima Gates' attendance at Grace Community Church is irrelevant to the Vernon investigation. He said Gates intends to carry through with the inquiry as instructed by the commission.
"If they worship at the same church, that is their business," Gil said.
Police Commissioner Michael Yamaki agreed.
"If the chief thinks it is a conflict, I am sure he will inform us," Yamaki said. "I am sure Chief Gates is like anybody else and probably does not agree with his wife on everything. . . . Personally, I am not concerned."
Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum said the commission ordered Gates to undertake the inquiry because the mayorally appointed panel does not have the authority to investigate Vernon on its own. City laws, he said, give the police chief--not the commission--the power to discipline Police Department employees. Sheinbaum said the commission will address the question of Gates' objectivity when it receives his report on the investigation.
"He is still the chief, last I heard from the City Council," Sheinbaum said. "That is his job."
Vernon, who has referred to the investigation as "religious persecution" and a "witch hunt," could not be reached on Monday.
Lance Quinn, an associate pastor at Grace Community Church, said Sima Gates' attendance at the 4,000-member church should have no bearing on the investigation.
"First of all, Daryl is a nonbeliever," Quinn said. "Even though he has a good relationship with Bob (Vernon), I don't think he would be either biased for him or antagonistic against him. They have a good working relationship, but they don't believe the same."
Vernon, 57, heads the department's Office of Operations and commands all patrol units and most detectives. The Police Commission ordered Gates to investigate Vernon after the publication in Los Angeles magazine of remarks he made more than a dozen years ago on a series of tapes now being sold through his church.
The recordings deal with a variety of subjects, including his views against homosexuality, his position that women should be "submissive" to their husbands and his belief that corporal punishment of children is necessary. Vernon, a lay minister at the church, continues to speak and write on the subjects.
In a letter last week, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky asked the Police Commission to look into allegations that Vernon's religious beliefs have influenced promotion and the hiring of gays and lesbians. The councilman said the allegations came from unnamed police officers who contacted his office. Yaroslavsky could not be reached for comment on Monday.