On Nov. 14, West Hollywood Human Services Commissioner Jimmy Palmieri angrily blogged about testimony given by Roger Coggan, Legal Director for the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, about alleged ill treatment of non-white clients by West Hollywood Sheriff's deputies. The blog post lead to two meetings between representatives from the Center, the city of West Hollywood and the WeHo Sheriff's Station, including WeHo Mayor Prang and Captain Fraser, both of whom are openly gay.
(WeHo Station Operations Lt. Cheryl Newman-Tarwater. Photo courtesy Lt. Dave Smith)
In a phone interview Tuesday morning, Coggan said his primary concern is the "institutional problem" with the LA County Sheriff's Department "as a whole," which he said "directly impacts the quality of policing in the city and the experience of our clients." He said that there have been 10 incidents since Oct. 1, 2010, ranging from verbal abuse to a handcuffed client being physically abused.
Alan Acosta, the Center executive who oversees the Legal Department, was also on the call. He said that while Captain Fraser was in the first meeting last week, she was not in the meeting on Monday night and that Prang had to leave after about a half hour to go to the City Council meeting. Acosta said that he and Coggan presented four of the complaints for review since the Sheriff's Department had already determined that the allegations were unfounded. Neither Acosta nor Coggan gave the names or gender of their clients, albeit the gender of two could be extrapolated. Coggan said:
The first complaint was from a client who alleged that a WeHo deputy had pressed his body up against the client and said, "Are you an angry man? You want to fight me?"
The second complaint was from a client who alleged being handcuffed and while on their knees had their legs and ribs kicked.
The third complaint was from a client who alleged being handcuffed and thrown against a wall, sustaining injuries. Apparently this person fit the description of a suspect the deputies were looking for and after being questioned, the client was released.
The fourth client alleged that a deputy said he was going to "teach him a lesson" - issuing a ticket for lack of insurance after the client claimed he showed proof of insurance. Neither Acosta nor Coggan had any idea what that "lesson" was supposed to be.
"None of the incidents gave any indication they were gay- related. But the clients were gay so they came to the Center," Coggan said, deepening his concern over the larger picture of the LA County Sheriff's Department (LASD) treatment of people.
Acosta said they did not come to any specific conclusions, but the totality of the complaints were serious enough to raise questions about the LASD and why the allegations were deemed unfounded. Acosta said:
"We raised these points so they would be taken seriously. The meetings were a good first start. We now want to work with them more to address these issues. There's still more discussion to be had....Everybody has the same objectives. The Sheriffs and the city all want the best possible policing so this is why we're bringing it to their attention."
"We see our Latino and non-Anglo clients being treated by the Sheriffs in a way that concerns us and try as they may, the city of West Hollywood isn't immune from the deputies that are hired by the LA County Sheriff's Department. Whereas the deputies by and large are adequate, the fact is that there are a host of other LGBT issues that directly effect our clients that are not being handled satisfactorily. All our clients must be treated fairly, whatever their ethnicity - and our Latino clients appear to be disproportionately effected by the conduct of the Sheriffs in West Hollywood and LA county, at large....We need to do better.
WeHo Station Operations Lt. Cheryl Newman-Tarwater, a married lesbian with children, and Area Operations Lt. David M. Smith, who has a gay son and has worked at WeHo station for more than 25 years, stressed in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview that everyone at the WeHo station loves working there and working with the LGBT community.
Tarwater and Smith were eager to share their view of the Monday night meeting, which started at 5:30 with the two of them, Coggan, Acosta, Prang, City Manager Arevalo, and Daphne Denise and Kirsta Cook, also from the city. Prang and Arevalo left at 6:00 for the City Council meeting.
Tarwater noted that Coggan raised the same concerns he brought up in the previous meeting last week. "He said he had nothing against the West Hollywood station or the city but the department as a whole," Tarwater said. But unlike the first meeting where they discussed the complaints presented on paper by The Center's Jake Finney - which had already been investigated and deemed unfounded, Tarwater said she felt the Monday night meeting was "more against us." And while all the complaints dated back to Oct. 1, 2010, "there was nothing in the last six months."
Nonetheless, Tarwater said Coggan noted there was still "a perception problem." She said he also brought up "other small concerns but didn't want to elaborate. He didn't give any specifics. They were the complaints that had already been investigated."
Smith felt that Coggan had changed his presentation because he had an audience - the mayor of West Hollywood. Smith also felt slighted by Coggan's comparison between the LAPD and the LASD and the two department's relationship with the LGBT community.
"For over 25 years, I've worked with the gay community and with The Center anytime they called me. If they had a client who needed help, I'd research it and directed it so it was dealt with. I'm concerned based on facts and every Captain who has worked here has stressed the importance of the relationship with the LGBT community. And everyone who comes here has extra training on how to deal with cultural diversity. All our deputies are very professional.
"We take everything very seriously, obviously. Dave has worked here for a very long time and worked closely with West Hollywood and the LGBT community," Tarwater said, so any complaint against the LGBT community "is disturbing to us."
Tarwater and Smith said the WeHo station is "a fantastic place to work" and the first choice for many deputies which is why "there is a waiting list to come here in the hundreds," Tarwater said. "We love the community and the community loves us. There is a mutual partnership with the city and the community."
Smith responded to some of the allegations, including that Latinos may be treated differently by deputies. He said that one of the complaints from two years ago referred to a Latino man being looked at because he had gang tattoos. "That's our job," Smith said. "If gang members are coming into the city, we need to know where they're coming from. It's not because of the color of their skin."
Smith said that deputies log each contact, not just the calls for service - and in the month of October alone, they generated 3,311 contacts. "Our number one job is to talk to people. Not all of the deputies have perfected that and mistakes and miscommunications happen, absolutely. And something completely inappropriate could happen - we're human. But these situations are dealt with appropriately by Captain Fraser."
Smith said another incident Coggan raised regarded an incident two years ago in November of 2010 that occurred at the Here Lounge, apparently involving a transgender patron. Smith said:
"The individual who was involved got into a fight with security and was punching security when the deputy arrived. Once the suspect was handcuffed, she was still combative - all of this was caught on tape - and the deputy did use a flashlight because her hands and legs had become weapons. So the use of force was justified because she was combative....
The incident was fully investigated....If we have a piece of the system broken, we need to fix it. But we need specifics."
Smith noted that the complaint process goes through Operations, then the Captain and if the complaint merits further review, the LA County Ombudsman and the Independent Review process. "If there's anything problematic, we address it immediately," Smith said, but with the facts presented so far in each of the complaints, there has been no sign of any type of bias against the LGBT community. "In fact, it's the opposite, for the most part."
Another allegation regarding someone who was handcuffed happened about a year and a half ago outside of Fubar, Smith said. Apparently a patron was detained by Fubar security but the allegation was made against the LASD. "We did a thorough investigation. We were the ones being blamed when the guy was not in his right mind. Security later fessed up to it."
Tarwater said no new complaints were presented Monday night but there was some talk about an incident that happened during Halloween. However, there is some confusion over whether the victim was specifically targeted because he was gay or if he was a victim of a robbery who wanted to subsequently describe the attack as a hate crime.
"Dave reached out to the victim but he didn't call back. Whatever Roger brings to us, we will thoroughly research it and if we missed something or if there was misconduct in any way, Captain Fraser ensures that there will be a thorough investigation of any wrong-doing and it will absolutely be dealt with. Everyone takes pride in working in this city. And if there is a rogue deputy or someone who doesn't belong here - if that happens, we want to know about it. But any action must be based on facts."
Tarwater and Smith said they were "sad" over the Nov. 15 arrest of Deputy Francisco Gamez, a 17 year veteran of the LASD, who had been working out of West Hollywood since 2005. Gomez was arrested on suspicion of murder in the death of a Sylmar man last June. They noted that Gomez was off-duty during the time of the alleged incident. "It was a personal matter, apparently involving his son. But he served this station well. It's a sad situation from his personal life and is not in any way related to the station or the city."
The Center's Alan Acosta says they intend to have another meeting with Captain Fraser and WeHo city staff after the holidays.