Opinion: WeHo’s Sheriff’s Station Needs to Communicate with The People It Protects

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.


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Carole Raphaelle Davis
Guest

This line says it all: “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.”

These officers don’t seem to understand who we are, where they are and what the law is. We have the most progressive city in the nation and our law enforcement team belongs in Missouri. They need training! And spankings.

Brad
Guest
Brad

Great insight, Insight.

We pay some bureaucrat $232,000 a year to sit at a desk and “supervise” the sheriff? That salary approaches what real cops make:

Salary for LA County Sheriff is $299,800 (per http://ceo.lacounty.gov/pdf/DepartmentHeadSalaries.pdf )

Salary for City of LA Police Chief is $324,392 (per http://controller.lacity.org/index.htm ).

Maybe we should fire that bureaucrat and spend the money on things that would actually make our city safer.

Mark
Guest
Mark

Finally someone other than myself is taking note on the laziness and inexperience of the West Hollywood station deputies. How about taking note of the fact that on many occasions, there are at least 5-6 cars at a specific restaurant or a coffee shop for hours. Who patrols our city when this happens. Also, who is supervising them and why is this allowed. My friends who work in the restaurants in the city say that all the sheriffs are comped for their meals and they are there regularly taking advantage of the system. I still have to pay for my… Read more »

Manny
Guest
Manny

Apparently the Weho sheriff discontinued publishing the weekly crime blotter. But reported incidents can be found at crimereports.com.

Todd Bianco
Guest

More information about crime in West Hollywood would be welcome. Other publications have published the crime blotter – which is a sanitized version of what goes on. You’d see some arrests for shoplifting, stolen bikes, recovered stolen cars. Maybe a break in. But we all see a lot of Sheriff activity – multiple units, screaming sirens, large presence. Then that’s the last you’d hear about it. Not even a mention of a domestic violence incidence or anything. The few interactions I’ve had with sheriffs over more than two decades have been mostly unhelpful, with a dash of indifference. WeHo is… Read more »

Manny
Guest
Manny

Good article and comments. My own limited experience (and I want to keep it that way) with the Sheriff Department has been generally good. But this issue is definately open for debate. I must comment specifically on the writer’s early accolades for the “InfoMap”. That site, on the contrary, does not provide “up to date information”. It typically does not publish development information in a timely manner. To this day, after several months of construction, the “InfoMap” still does not show any information on the huge development going up at the intersections of San Vicente/Norwich and Rosewood. If we’re talking… Read more »

90069
Guest
90069

Agreed with Insight. We’ve got a lot of channels to work with but I don’t see anyone coming to the meetings making the case.

Insight
Guest

You guys are barking up the wrong tree. West Hollywood contracts with LASD. The city pays the bills. If you want more transparency, then get into the face of the city and demand the Sheriff’s Department disclose crime info. There’s a Public Safety Commission. Attend their meetings and scream at them. There’s a Director of Public Safety. Get on the phone and scream at her. (Her total compensation: $232,000.00. She’s paid well to take your grief.) The City Manager sets the policy for how city hall works. He tells Public Safety what to tell the Sheriff’s Department. Get on the… Read more »

Flores St.
Guest
Flores St.

Which candidate for sheriff will be the best for enacting change? There is not much substantive online about the race.

Alison
Guest
Alison

SinLA, I was not responding to your comment, I was commenting on the Mr. Scott’s article. If you notice, I commented on a few of the topics he listed as problems, including having Deputies smile more and the language they use and the difficulty in getting information from them in a timely manner.

Brad
Guest
Brad

Great perspective.

I’d love to know how much the city pays the county for this outsourced police service; and how much Beverly Hills pays for its police department.

I wonder if we would get more personal and higher-quality police service by contracting with Beverly Hills for police service.

SinLA
Guest
SinLA

Nice — blame the victim with absolutely no information to suggest such a conclusion. In our case there was nothing at all inappropriate in our demeanor. We were pleasant, overly sweet in fact. Our building had just gone through a dangerous episode, and simply were asking for information about if the person arrested ON our property was in custody. A perfectly reasonable question to ask. In fact, MOST people are extremely deferential when initially interacting with police, and only end up pissed off when treated like crap like the stories above demonstrate. We have another building nearby where a woman… Read more »