Since the retirement last year of Helen Goss, its uncommunicative head of communications, West Hollywood City Hall has done a remarkable job of improving communications with its citizens. Consider the city’s InfoMap service, which provides up to date information on local development. Or the 1343 N. Laurel Ave. “community visioning” effort to engage residents in planning the future use of that historic project. Or Thursday’s #Wehochat Twitter discussion on the city’s budget process. Public information employees now respond promptly to requests for information.
But it all goes dark when it comes to finding out about crime in West Hollywood. That’s because of the remarkably uncooperative Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, with which WeHo contracts for its public safety services, and its West Hollywood Station.
Capt. Gary Honings, who runs the West Hollywood station, himself is a great communicator. He’s a man who actually walks the streets every month to meet local residents and ask questions about public safety issues (something City Council members should consider doing). His knowledge and understanding of the city is impressive. In what other small city would the head of the Sheriff’s station make an effort to know about a minority group like the transgender community?
Unfortunately, Honings’ communication skills aren’t shared by many of the people who work for him or those who work above him. For example, deputies on duty at the Sheriff’s Station who take our calls usually have never heard of WEHOville.com (despite the fact that more than a year ago we went through the onerous process — six months because of bureaucratic incompetence at the department’s headquarters — to get an official press pass). While we’ve heard the stories of how much deputies love working in West Hollywood, we suspect it’s less because of a passion for a community they don’t live in and don’t read about than because it’s a much more cushy assignment than Compton.
It took 17 hours and nearly a dozen telephone calls last week for WEHOville to get some basic communication from the Sheriff’s Department about a bizarre occurrence at the Abbey in which a patron apparently bit people and then was wrestled to the ground on Santa Monica Boulevard outside the P.U.M.P. lounge. Thankfully, readers of WEHOville called about and texted and emailed photos of the incident while it was occurring.
A Sheriff’s deputy shot someone at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard at 1:30 a.m. today. Eight and a half hours later, all the Sheriff’s Department could say was that a Sheriff’s deputy shot someone at the House of Blues. Who? Why? It wasn’t until 10:13 a.m. that that last question was answered. Today, a deputy answering a call about the identity of the person shot said she needed a case number to give an answer. Could it get more bureaucratic and uncooperative?
And of course there were the horrendous killings recently at 939 Palm Ave. Unfortunately, it will take the $25 million claim filed by the parents of young John Winkler against the county to tell us what really happened there (unless the County decides to settle up to keep things under wraps).
Given that they involved deaths, the 939 Palm incidents did prompt an initial flurry of statements from the Sheriff’s Department. But they were written in a sort of bureaucratese that only further highlights the county department’s communications problem — It doesn’t speak the same language as the citizens it is paid to protect. Initially we thought that deputies doing a “welfare check” were looking to see if a welfare check had arrived in someone’s mailbox. Anyone who has studied English in elementary school should know that “aggressing” is not a verb. And, not to get picky, but one doesn’t arrest a “male,” which is an adjective used to describe the sex of a human being. One arrests a “man.” The West Hollywood jailer also should know that when he’s asked what crime someone is in jail for, the rational response is something like “assault and battery” or “murder” rather than citing the number from the penal code. This may all sound petty, but it’s indicative of the culture of an organization that doesn’t know how to speak to the people it is supposed to protect.
While these incidents are recent, the problem is longstanding. The 939 Palm incidents sparked an outpouring of comments from readers of WEHOville about other instances over the years of poor communication if not arrogance on the part of Sheriff’s deputies in West Hollywood.
So what’s to be done? We think a formal and public process to solicit community input would be a good start. If the city is going to spend money figuring out what to do about Tara, how about spending money on how to fix problems with the Sheriff’s Department? Unfortunately, the city’s Public Safety Commission might not be the best place to do that. Several people who attended its May 12 awards presentation told WEHOville privately they were struck by the fact that there was no mention of the community grief and anger provoked by the incident at 939 Palm in which deputies shot and killed one young man and wounded another who were trying to escaped their attacker. A moment of silence in honor of John Winkler would have been appropriate. Not even one of our City Council members thought to suggest that.
As for the Sheriff’s Station, here are a few suggestions:
• Tell deputies to smile. Target and WalMart demand that of their employees. There’s no reason deputies shouldn’t be required to do the same to reduce the widespread perception of arrogance that tarnishes their reputation.
• Put deputies through a basic course about West Hollywood organized by the city’s Public Information Office. That would include a brief history of the city and how it’s organized and who its leaders are, an explanation of its demographics (percentage of men and women, gays and lesbians, Russian-speaking people, homeless people, etc.). It also would include an introduction to the news media that cover West Hollywood, with a suggestion that deputies actually read or listen to it from time to time.
• Commit to getting information out quickly to the news media and the public at large about anything that really stirs public interest. When photos that show deputies wrestling a disturbed man to the ground on Santa Monica Boulevard outside a well-known night club flood the internet, citizens don’t want to wait 17 hours to find out who did what to whom. This is 2014 and no one wants to wait 24 hours to find out why six police cars with sirens screaming were on one’s block.
• Drop the bureaucratese. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service knows that that sort of “language” sends a not-so-subtle message. That message is “we don’t want to talk to you.”
And finally, the West Hollywood City Council should establish a task force to consider whether WeHo should have its own police force. Certainly that will be expensive. But Beverly Hills, a city with the same size population, has its own. It is really the only way to make certain that those charged with keeping West Hollywood safe and enforcing its laws are accountable to the citizens who pay their salaries.