Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, reversing his stand of the day before, said Thursday that two officers who publicly acknowledged their homosexual lifestyles recently will be allowed to wear their uniforms at a police recruitment booth during a gay pride festival in West Hollywood this weekend.
Gay activists who had criticized the chief's opposition to letting the officers wear their uniforms on the off-duty assignment said they appreciated Gates' new stand. But both Gates and gay activists made it clear that they still disagree on many issues concerning the Los Angeles Police Department and gay rights.
At a Westwood news conference, gay activists called the Police Department recruitment effort a historic event in Los Angeles. Six gay officers have said they are interested in participating in the recruitment effort, activists said, but some will probably wear civilian clothes and avoid media attention.
Only two, Officer Sue Herold and reserve Officer Paul Butler, both of the Hollywood Division, have publicly discosed their homosexuality. Mitch Grobeson, a former Police Department sergeant who is suing the department on charges that other officers harassed him because he is gay, said he plans to join the recruitment effort. City law prohibits hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Grobeson, a San Francisco police officer, praised Herold and Butler as "incredibly courageous" and said Gates' decision "is a step in the right direction."
Before Gates' reversal, the officers had planned to wear civilian clothes and their police badges in accordance with the chief's directive, Grobeson said.
Mark Haskins, co-chairman of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Police Advisory Task Force, called the chief's decision "a very positive thing for the gay and lesbian community and for the community of Los Angeles in general. It's been a long time coming."
"There have always been gay and lesbian police officers, but they were just not comfortable in letting it known," Haskins said.
Herold, saying that she did not want her image featured in television broadcasts or in newspapers, participated in the conference by speaker phone. Herold said she feared for her safety on the job if individuals who are hostile toward homosexuals know she is a lesbian.
"We aren't willing to put her life at risk for the sake of a media event," said Carol Anderson of the Gay and Lesbian Police Advisory Task Force. "Unfortunately there are people who think it's OK to attack gay and lesbian people."
In an interview last week in the gay newspaper Vanguard, Herold described incidents of harassment by fellow officers who believed she was a lesbian. But in recent days, "I haven't experienced anything terribly derogatory," Herold said.
Herold said she hoped that attention would be focused on recruitment, and not on her or other gay officers. "Over and above everything, we're all police officers first," she said.
For Gates, it was a grudging, awkward pirouette. After learning that his top deputies had approved the gay officers' recruitment plan, the chief said Wednesday through a spokesman that he was opposed to letting the officers wear uniforms at the festival. That comment triggered angry reaction from the gay community.
In a news conference Thursday, Gates said the officers would be allowed to wear their uniforms because the request was approved by high-ranking Police Department officials. Cmdr. Robert B. Taylor had approved the gay officers' request after discussions with Assistant Chiefs David Dotson and Robert L. Vernon.
Gates made it clear that he regards the event as a one-time exception and said he still thinks the officers should wear civilian clothes this weekend.
The chief also said he still believes that there is no reason for the Police Department to recruit from the gay community.
"I just don't think we should go out and recruit on the basis of a particular lifestyle," Gates said.
"We welcome anyone who has the desire to be a police officer and has all it takes to be a police officer," he added. "There will be no discrimination within the Police Department."
But gay activists contend that discrimination is institutionalized within the Police Department. Grobeson asserted that the Police Department's hiring policies seek to exclude people who are believed to be homosexual and that Internal Affairs keeps a file of suspected homosexual lovers on the force. Gay activists testifying before the Christopher Commission, which is conducting an extensive review of the Police Department in the wake of the Rodney G. King beating, blame allegedly anti-gay attitudes for incidents of police brutality against gays.
Gay activists grinned while expressing gratitude to Vernon for approving the gay officers' request. Vernon, a fundamentalist Christian, has preached against homosexuality in his church, incurring the anger of the gay community.
Melanie Lomax, acting president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, said that even with Gates' capitulation about the wearing of uniforms, much remains to be done to improve the department's standing with the homosexual community.
"The LAPD has to be brought out of the dark ages, and clearly he (Gates) has been in the dark ages regarding recruiting gay officers," Lomax said. "Modern police departments all understand that the gay community is an identifiable, legitimate segment of the community and that you don't deal with that community from a moralist or puritanical basis."