I spent more than three and a half hours today handcuffed in the back of a sheriff’s deputy’s car and locked up in a holding cell at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station.
It all started a little after 9:30 a.m. when I was driving west along Santa Monica Boulevard and edged across Sweetzer Avenue, only to find my car blocked by a sudden slow down in traffic. I sat in my motionless car, blocking a few feet of the intersection of Santa Monica and Sweetzer and took a moment to talk on my cell phone (which I now know is illegal when you’re behind a steering wheel, even if traffic isn’t moving.)
Someone behind me on Sweetzer, evidently upset that I was blocking her, honked her horn several times. I turned and, regrettably, made an obscene gesture. Traffic eased, and I moved forward, only to hear a voice broadcast from the dark-colored and unmarked car telling me to pull over. I pulled into a parking space in front of the Crossroads used clothing store. I got out of my car and approached the annoying driver who was harassing me, saying something like “What the hell is your problem?” (My friends know that while I’m a Tar Heel by birth, after 20 years living in New York City I don’t suffer obnoxious fools.)
At that point the woman in the drivers seat rolled down her window and I was confronted with a gun held in both her hands.
She was, she announced, a detective (and thus not wearing a uniform or driving a marked car). I’m still not sure why she ordered me to pull over (one of the two “crimes” I was charged with was using a cell phone while driving, something Sheriff’s Station insiders tell me is not a crime detectives typically cite people for. That’s a deputy’s job.) My guess is she was annoyed that I blocked her and made an obscene gesture at her when she honked at me. I didn’t see the flashing lights inside her car that she said she used to pull me over. And frankly, I don’t know what flashing lights inside an unmarked car driven by someone not wearing a uniform would have told me anyway.
The more serious crime I’m charged with is resisting a police officer. I’m guessing that’s because as she identified herself as a detective I asked her why the hell she was pointing a gun at me and got back into my car. I locked the doors while she approached, gun drawn, and demanded that I get out. I was on the telephone then trying to call Lt. Dave Smith, the second in command at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station, for advice.
Suddenly I was surrounded by at least four squad cars and about seven deputies. This time I did what I was told when a deputy demanded I get out of the car. What I didn’t do, and what may be another reason for the charge of resisting a police officer, is give the angry detective my cell phone. Eventually it was taken from me, and I was handcuffed (those handcuffs really hurt by the way, and my right thumb as of this writing still has lost all feeling) and put in the back of a squad car for about an hour while deputies clustered on the sidewalk, apparently trying to figure out what to do.
I was driven to the Sheriff’s Station on San Vicente Boulevard where the handcuffs were removed, as were my shoes and belt. I was taken into a room where an officer asked me to face the wall. “Step forward,” he said. I did. “Against the wall,” he shouted. I turned to look at him, at which point he screamed, “Don’t turn around” and pushed me hard into the wall, hurting my chest. When I told him he had no right to shove me like that, another deputy who watched the incident said he didn’t see him shove me. And the officer who shoved me said that I was lucky. If he had really shoved me, he said, I would have been in much more pain.
For two hours I sat in an empty holding cell about eight by eight feet wide, stepping out to be fingerprinted and photographed. Eventually a jovial detective took me out for an interview, where I told my story. Given that I now face a charge of interfering with an officer (anyone know a good and cheap lawyer?), I’m guessing that my story and the angry gun-toting detective’s don’t much coincide.
So why am I telling this story? For one thing, as a journalist and the publisher of WEHOville, the dominant news medium covering West Hollywood, I believe it is my responsibility to disclose an incident like this. I have my opinions, but I try to keep them out of news stories and only publish them identified as opinions, as I’m doing with this. You, dear readers, need to know about this personal encounter with the Sheriff’s Station so that you can judge my ability to be objective in reporting the news about the station.
But I also am writing about this because it is a small example of a massive disconnect between how our elected and appointed city officials see the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station and how many ordinary people on the street see it. That has affected me both personally and as a journalist.
When I moved to West Hollywood about three and a half years ago, I quickly learned that the bedroom of my apartment was about 50 feet from the Mondrian hotel’s Skybar. The noise was so loud I couldn’t sleep in my apartment and occasionally had to crash with a friend or get a motel room. When I called deputies to complain on the nights when the Code Compliance inspector was off, the response was always grumpy, with most of the deputies acting like they didn’t want to be bothered. (Code Compliance, by the way, explained that they didn’t fine the Mondrian despite a 10-year history of this problem because, and I quote: “We like to work with our local businesses rather than fine them.”
About a year later I launched WEHOville.com, and last May I published an editorial titled “WeHo’s Sheriff’s Station Needs to Communicate with The People It Protects.” That editorial cited the problems WEHOville had getting information from the Sheriff’s Station to convey to our readers — the residents of West Hollywood whose taxes pay for the police services provided under the city’s contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
I noted that it took 17 hours and a dozen phone calls last May to get a response from the Sheriff’s Station 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. Readers called and texted us about it as it was happening. That same month a deputy shot someone at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. Eight and a half hours later, all the Sheriff’s Station could say was that a Sheriff’s deputy shot someone at the House of Blues. Who? Why? It took nine hours to get an answer to that last question.
I also complained about the Sheriff’s Station’s refusal to release the names of deputies involved in the tragic incident at 939 Palm Ave. where deputies shot and killed one innocent young man and severely injured his friend as they were escaping a knife-wielding attacker. It took a request by WEHOville to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, citing the state’s Freedom of Information law, for them to reluctantly release that information.
Late one night recently it took seven calls and several hours to confirm that a homeless man had died at West Hollywood Park. Most of the calls were directed by the Sheriff’s Station receptionist to the telephones of the watch commander and watch sergeant, who not only didn’t answer their phones but didn’t take voice mail messages. Eventually, I insisted that the receptionist ask the watch commander to leave a meeting to explain the circumstances behind the unusual finding of a dead body in a public place. The watch commander, about 14 hours after the body was found, said she didn’t know much except that a dead body had been found in West Hollywood Park. Where in the park? She didn’t know. Any unusual circumstances? She didn’t know. The name of the man? She didn’t know. Call back later, she said. I did, and she didn’t answer.
The response from City Hall to my May editorial was encouraging. City Manager Paul Arevalo arranged a meeting with me and Capt. Gary Honings, who runs the local sheriff’s station. They talked about how residents overall love the local deputies. I think I think I surprised them with my own experiences and those conveyed to me by readers, which contradicted some of their perceptions. Since our meeting Honings has been very cooperative, as has Lt. Smith, his second in command. They even arranged for me to go on a “ride along” with a charming deputy who entertained me with stories about his work in West Hollywood.
But for me, things really haven’t changed when it comes to dealing with the station’s rank and file. Most of the issues have been minor. There was the deputy who grabbed my arm and tried to drag me away rather than ask me to move when I tried to take a photo of the Tesla that crashed in the Congregation Kol Ami synagogue last summer, standing where another deputy told me I was allowed. There were the deputies who tried to deny me permission to take a photo of what seemed to be a fire at the El Mirador apartment building on Fountain, despite by showing them a press pass. I was surprised when several of those I encountered today asked me what I did for a living and told me they’d never heard of WEHOville. That’s a sign that we’re not doing our job or they aren’t doing theirs, which is to really engage with the community they’re paid to serve.
While that is a problem for me as a journalist. It was today’s experience as a resident confronted by an angry gun-wielding woman without a uniform driving an unmarked car (and being slammed into a wall by a deputy and his sidekick who denied that they’d done it) that really put into perspective some of the problems ordinary people on the street face in West Hollywood. Those are problems that residents routinely email and call us about, but given that most of them involve rude and condescending behavior by deputies I deem them not worth a news story.
Going forward, much as I admire Honings and Smith and their personal responsiveness, I don’t hold lots of hope that the Sheriff’s Station is going to change. For one thing, the station is part of the much larger Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, infamous for corruption. Also, there’s little evidence that our City Council members, enthroned behind that elevated dais at the Council Chambers and often out of touch with real life in West Hollywood, will do much about it either. After all, when residents complained at a Council meeting in June about the killing of an innocent young man by Sheriff’s deputies at 939 Palm, then Councilmembers Jeffrey Prang and John D’Amico (who now is mayor) and Councilmember John Duran did nothing but declare their support for the station. “We stand firmly with you and the Sheriff’s department,” Duran said.