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Los Angeles

Deputies, Gays Leave Troubles in the Past

Community: West Hollywood leaders say the Sheriff's Department has done an about-face since being accused of bias 10 years ago.

February 12, 2002|SUFIYA ABDUR-RAHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

West Hollywood's gay and lesbian community was boiling over with frustration in 1991. Gov. Pete Wilson had just vetoed a major gay rights bill, sparking statewide protests. The AIDS epidemic continued to claim lives.

And when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department fired a gay deputy amid cries of discrimination, activists had had enough. So they lobbied to end the city's contract with the Sheriff's Department in favor of a police force that might better reflect the population of 36,000, which was estimated to be one-third gay.

The City Council put the divisive issue on the ballot, and voters narrowly decided to keep the Sheriff's Department. The close brush with losing a $9-million contract, the department's largest at the time, pushed the station to begin efforts to improve its relationship with gay residents. Ten years later, residents and city officials said, that relationship has gone from troubled to positive.

Today, several openly gay deputies serve in the station; it is a presence that was unimaginable a decade ago.

''It's been a long, long journey, but the [deputies] are now part of the community. And the community respects what they do,'' said Ivy Bottini, co-chairwoman of the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, a group of residents who act as liaisons to the City Council.

Change has come not only in the city but in the department's policies. After his election in 1998, Sheriff Lee Baca added the word ''homophobia'' to his agency's core-values statement. He vowed that the department would ''stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms.''

''Law enforcement has to do more to protect human rights and civil rights,'' Baca said recently.

Things were different 10 years ago. West Hollywood residents said law enforcement raids on gay bars, mistreatment of homosexuals in jail and lack of deputy recruitment in the gay community created animosity among gay and lesbian residents.

''I think a lot of people felt there was homophobia within the Sheriff's [Department],'' said Nancy Greenstein, a former West Hollywood public safety administrator who is UCLA's director of police community services.

Rodney Scott, who is gay and has lived in West Hollywood for more than a decade, has seen the station's transformation.

When deputies dealt with gay and lesbian residents 10 years ago, ''they weren't sensitive to sexual orientation issues,'' he said. ''Those were challenges that have pretty much been mitigated.''

Changes in Policy Made

Scott, co-chairman of Christopher Street West, said deputies ''work really well with us'' at the group's annual gay pride parade on Santa Monica Boulevard, which attracts about 250,000 people.

''The thing that spurred the change--I think a lot of it--was that election,'' said Deputy Don Mueller. The November 1992 ballot measure to form a police department was defeated 53% to 47%.

Afterward, Greenstein said, she worked to improve the Sheriff's Department's relationship with gay and lesbian law enforcement officers and residents. That meant eliminating questions about applicants' sexual practices from the department's psychological screenings, implementing cultural awareness training and recruiting from the gay community. Even before the election was called, West Hollywood had begun securing changes in department policies. In 1990, the city won a battle--begun soon after incorporation in 1984--to bar discrimination in the hiring of gays and lesbians as deputies.

Bias against them was cited by the 1992 Kolts Commission in its review of the Sheriff's Department.

The department was ''a very difficult environment for gays and lesbians to work in or find employment'' in, according to the 359-page report produced by the commission, which was led by special counsel James G. Kolts.

The gay community saw the April 1991 termination of gay West Hollywood Sheriff's Deputy Bruce Boland as a prime example of discrimination.

The department said he was fired because of erroneous information in a report he filed that led to a drug suspect being freed. Boland contended the error was minor and that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

The West Hollywood station has made such an about-face that a plaque with a photo of Boland, who died of AIDS in 1995, now hangs in the lobby.

And Deputy Mueller, who is gay, heads the station's community relations effort.

For years, fear of discrimination kept him from pursuing his dream of becoming a cop. Then in 1990, he left his job as a stockbroker and went for it. When he was hired and assigned to the Men's Central Jail, he worked just as hard to hide his sexual orientation.

'I Was Tired of That Fear'

''I had to make up stories about a fake, imaginary girlfriend,'' Mueller said. ''I had to make up reasons why my friends had to call first before coming over. I was terrified [that] somebody would see me when I was 'somewhere questionable.' I was tired of that fear.''

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