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The Rainbow Badge

Photo by Max S. Gerber

IN A DECADE, THE LAPD HAS GONE FROM BEING VIOLENTLY hostile toward gay and lesbian officers to becoming what some see as a national model for integrating out cops. "When I joined the police department 27 years ago, obviously the department did not hire gays and lesbians, and made a concerted effort to uncover anyone who was gay or lesbian so they would be deselected from the process," said Deputy Chief David Kalish, the highest-ranking openly gay member of the force. "Today it's almost a nonissue. I think the men and women of the LAPD and the people of the community are quite sophisticated and are not overly concerned about an individual's sexual orientation."

Kalish, on the police commission's shortlist for the chief's job, kept quiet about his sexuality for years, knowing full well any admission could kill his career. Until the early '90s, coming out at the LAPD meant two things: harassment and termination. In a memo distributed in the late 1970s, then­Deputy Chief Robert L. Vernon warned the department that "the homosexual is constantly involved in crimes of violence" and that "the hiring of homosexuals as police officers is repulsive to nearly all persons." His words could well have been department policy.

In those days, during the interview process, it was common practice to ask LAPD recruits about the last person they dated and the nature of their living situation if they had same-sex roommates.

Today, more than 150 gay LAPD officers are out, serving in virtually every division. This diversity didn't come easily, and in some cases, old attitudes die hard in the LAPD. The question remains: Can gays and lesbians serve without their sexuality being an issue in the workplace?

GAY AND LESBIAN OFFICERS HAD TO OVERCOME A ROCKY HISTORY with the LAPD, and often went to great lengths to hide the truth. For Fran Briscoe, a 13-year veteran, even paying dues for class-related items at the Police Academy in 1989 was a problem, since she had a joint account with her then girlfriend. "I had to go out and get a separate checking account with my name on it," she explains. "I was too afraid to have two female names on the check."

Targeting gay and lesbian officers for abuse was commonplace. Gay cops knew that undercover vice officers would routinely tail guests to their homes and enthusiastically take down license-plate numbers. Even worse, an openly gay cop requiring backup knew it was unlikely that straight officers would respond to the call.

Then, in 1988, Officer Mitch Grobeson made history as the first police officer in the country to file a suit against a law-enforcement agency alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation. Considered a good cop, Grobeson started having problems after an L.A. County sheriff's deputy saw him in West Hollywood and outed him to LAPD brass. According to Grobeson's lawsuit, this inspired fellow cops to concoct a plan to get the gay officer in trouble. They goaded a suspected drug user to file a complaint, accusing Grobeson of forcing him to disrobe. After pushing to have his case heard by an LAPD trial board, Grobeson's accuser admitted cops pressured him to make the story up. Grobeson was exonerated, but none of the officers involved in the false accusation were ever disciplined.

Upset with the department's handling of the matter, Grobeson finally left the force and sued the city. In 1993, he settled his lawsuit in return for a six-digit settlement and an agreement requiring the city to change its practices that discriminated against gays and lesbians. This included revamping the recruitment process, adding diversity training at the Police Academy, and formalizing a complaint procedure for anyone alleging discrimination. Grobeson returned to the force, but said he was still a target of harassment. In 1996, he filed a second suit, citing violations of his rights to equal protection, due process and free speech.

Two years later, a judge agreed with Grobeson's claims, and the city entered into negotiations to come up with a financial settlement and address all the pledges made in the 1993 agreement. By 1998, the city had spent or paid millions of dollars to gay cops who could show in court a pattern of bias and harassment.

Another impetus for great gay and lesbian change came in the wake of the LAPD's biggest challenge -- the Rodney King riots. "It was the catalyst for a lot of issues," says Sergeant Tina Nieto of LAPD's Training Group. Nieto was part of the critical mass of gay and lesbian officers at Pacific Division who formed Pride Behind the Badge, the first organization of homosexual LAPD cops. The group formed after two officers were told by then-Chief Daryl Gates they couldn't recruit for officers at the gay-friendly Sunset Junction Street Fair in Silver Lake. "These officers finally said, 'You know what, we're tired of not standing up for who we are.'"

Pride Behind the Badge merged with other gay law-enforcement groups to become the Golden State Peace Officers Association (GSPOA), which represents not only gay cops but also gay firefighters, emergency-medical technicians and court officers across California. Last fall the association held a national gay law-enforcement conference in West Hollywood, with the LAPD serving as a host.

While the LAPD has improved outreach and public relations, critics of the department say it has not aggressively recruited gays and lesbians. They claim the applications taken at events like Gay Pride and Sunset Junction were not met with the same enthusiasm as applications taken elsewhere.

A gender divide still exists as well. Once they make the force, gay men find they have a harder time than their lesbian counterparts. Critics also say not enough is done to promote out officers.

What's really needed, say Nieto and others, is an LAPD-specific organization for gays and lesbians along the lines of La Ley (which represents Latino officers) and the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation (which represents African-American cops).

A group of gay and lesbian officers recently founded Gay & Lesbian Law Enforcement Professionals (GALLEP) to address these problems. "We're looking toward getting more gay and lesbian officers promoted within the department, and we're going to assist in training, getting them into classrooms," says Officer Stacey Simmons, a group member and the LAPD's liaison to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Simmons and Nieto held one of the group's first meetings at Parker Center, and were surprised to see a male recruit currently enrolled in the academy walk through the door. "That's unheard of," Nieto explains, "because usually when you're a recruit you're afraid of everything."

The recruit didn't say much, beyond asking who gave permission for the meeting. Originally a cop in the Midwest, he was shocked to find out that no approval was needed. Besides, they added, he probably felt more comfortable when he saw who was in the room. "Also at the meeting was one of his academy instructors," Simmons says. "And not only that," Nieto says, "I'm in his chain of command too."