Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams met Wednesday with a roomful of gay and lesbian leaders on their own turf, signaling a dramatic thaw in the Police Department's icy relations with the city's homosexual community.
Williams promised changes in the department's historically aloof attitude toward gays. Confronted with a list of complaints about police treatment of gays and lesbians, Williams said that "my job is to set a new tone. . . . We're heading in a new direction."
Williams' mere presence beneath a sign with a large pink triangle--the symbol of gay activism--in a meeting room of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood was heralded by those in attendance as a historic event--virtually unimaginable during the tenure of Williams' predecessor, Daryl F. Gates.
Many of the more than 30 leaders of the gay community who attended the meeting seemed impressed by Williams' tone and statements. "He had really great answers," said David M. Smith, the center's director of public information. "He's clearly a politician. He said a lot of things people wanted to hear."
Williams indicated that a department liaison officer would be appointed to assure the gay community better access to the department, and he listened sympathetically to criticism of police dealings with gays.
"It doesn't make any difference what your sexual preference is," Williams told the group. While he stopped short of saying he would specifically target gays for recruitment to the department, Williams said sexual orientation should be irrelevant--as it was, he noted, during his tenure as Philadelphia's top police official.
"Your sexual preference should not be a question asked by the Police Department," Williams said.
Gay leaders had no shortage of complaints during the meeting. They described the Police Department as indifferent to gay-bashing and brought up incidents ranging from the mistreatment of gay-rights demonstrators in the aftermath of Gov. Pete Wilson's veto of a gay-rights bill, to the entrapment of gays by LAPD vice officers.
Sworn in five weeks ago, Williams said he is reviewing the department's training and policies for handling demonstrations and use of force. Told by one gay leader that police routinely ask men that they perceive to be gay if they have the AIDS virus, Williams responded: "To me, that sounds wrong."
Williams also promised to take disciplinary action if necessary to erase anti-gay bias in the department. And he agreed to change his own terminology when told that the term "sexual orientation" was favored over "sexual preference."
"That's fine. . . . I'm still learning to be a Southern Californian," nodded Williams, who came to Los Angeles from Philadelphia.
Last year, Williams was criticized by many leaders in Philadelphia's gay community for his handling of an investigation into the alleged beating of gay-rights demonstrators by police during a visit by President Bush.
Williams, who later included gay leaders on a commission investigating the incident, was also mildly upbraided during an early visit to Los Angeles for not reaching out to the gay community.
"Don't judge us on that one day," he said yesterday, referring to the Philadelphia beating incident.
While gay leaders appeared enthusiastic about Williams' presence, some also wondered whether his sympathy for their concerns would trickle down to the department's middle management and rank-and-file.
"I think he's serious. He gets it," said Mary Newcombe, a gay-rights attorney. "Whether he succeeds in changing the department's attitudes remains to be seen."