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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : A New Kind of Sheriff in Town : Relations were frosty between deputies and West Hollywood residents. But the department changed all that by tailoring its services to the community.

June 01, 1995|SUSAN STEINBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

West Hollywood resident Norma Kemper was surprised when she heard a knock on her front door at 9:30 p.m. Her surprise grew as she discovered Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Connors standing on the porch. He apologized for the late hour, explaining that he had just come on duty, and said he wanted to introduce himself to residents in the neighborhood he had been assigned to patrol.

"I was completely flabbergasted; I thought it was great," said Kemper, a member of the city's advisory Public Safety Commission.

In an era when most citizens are clamoring simply to see a cop drive through their neighborhood, a deputy stopping by just to say hello signals a welcome change in the policing methods of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in West Hollywood, residents said.

With its high-profile bicycle and foot patrols, widespread Neighborhood Watch groups and joint city-law enforcement crime prevention programs, the West Hollywood station has become a leader in community-oriented policing.

Clearly aware of the special needs of the congested and eclectic city, law enforcement has been tailored to the local issues: A hate-crime detective investigates gay-bashing, a team of deputies has been designated as policing ambassadors to the community, and programs target such longstanding problems as street prostitution.

Although definitions of community-oriented or community-based policing abound, experts usually describe it as a method of law enforcement that emphasizes contact with the community and programs that prevent crime.

"It can be as simple as stopping your patrol car and getting out to talk to residents," said Sgt. Mike Parker, leader of West Hollywood's new seven-member Community Oriented Policing Sheriff's team, nicknamed COPS. "What follows is people get to know us, are less hesitant to call, and there is a drop in the fear of crime."

Because of its unique needs, West Hollywood was one of the first Sheriff's Department stations to adopt community-oriented policing strategies in 1984. In fact, the city and the station have been held up as a model of community policing by Sheriff Sherman Block.

Said Block: "The city of West Hollywood has been progressive, really since its inception, to develop programs in cooperation with us--the kind of programs that have enhanced the quality of life."

Before West Hollywood's incorporation in 1984 and immediately after, police patrols were a different story, city and sheriff's officials agree. Challenges stemmed from the diversity of the densely populated city, which has an active gay and lesbian population, a large number of senior citizens and an influx of Russian immigrants.

The gay population had longstanding animosity toward the Sheriff's Department, accusing deputies of harassment and homophobia. Residents complained that the department failed to crack down on street hustlers on Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards. The city's parks were crime-ridden, and inside the department, deputies suffered from low morale.

For several stormy years, some residents tried to jettison the city's $9-million annual contract with the Sheriff's Department and start a West Hollywood Police Department. Besieged by complaints from constituents, city officials began to take action on their own.

Realizing the need to change, the West Hollywood station chief, Capt. Rachel Burgess, brought deputies and gay activists together for meetings. Their once-hostile gatherings developed into the respected Gay and Lesbian/Sheriff's Conference Committee.

In addition, after years of evolution as an informal body, the powerful Public Safety Commission was formed in 1989. It has since spawned other groups that have continued to build alliances between the sheriff's station, City Hall and residents.

In 1992, the James G. Kolts report, which found in the Sheriff's Department a "deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline," praised the West Hollywood station as a model of community-based policing. The report, patterned after the Christopher Commission report on the Los Angeles Police Department, followed an investigation into complaints that the Sheriff's Department used excessive force.

The success of the West Hollywood station stems from deputies working together with the community and city officials, experts say.

"West Hollywood is further along than other stations," said Natalie Salazar, who oversees community policing in the Sheriff's Department. "There is an ongoing and successful relationship between the [West Hollywood station], the community and the city--which is a triumvirate you don't necessary expect."

This year the city has seen a boom in the number of new programs.

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