“Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.” Los Angeles was stunned on April 29, 1992 to hear the verdicts in the case of four white LAPD officers accused of assault in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King a year earlier.
How could anyone, even the white pro-police jurors in Simi Valley, refuse to acknowledge what minority communities had complained about for years – the brutality of the LAPD. The verdicts lanced the festering wounds of injustice and riots broke out in South Central. And LGBT people were involved at every juncture.
The LAPD vice squad was infamous for mistreating gays. No one cared. Even before anti-gay Ed Davis became chief in 1969, police harassed gays through bars raids, entrapment and selective enforcement, as well as violence with no fear of accountability. For instance, cops purportedly dangled a young gay man over a cliff to get him to reveal names of a supposed pedophile ring.
Then on March 9, 1969, two vice officers raided the bathhouse-style Dover Hotel in downtown L.A. looking for “faggots.” They claimed that Howard Efland, a slightly framed male nurse, groped them so they beat him, arrested him, and dragged his naked, bleeding body by his feet down a flight of stairs as he screamed for help. Once on the street, the officers kicked him, knee-dropped onto his stomach and continued to beat him, according to witnesses. Efland later died at LA County Hospital, with police telling his parents he had died of a heart attack. The coroner later ruled his death an “excusable homicide,” a justification accepted by the mainstream media. The L.A. Advocate, however, reported the real story, “radicalizing” gays like The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, who led 120 marchers to the Dover to protest Efland’s death under color of authority. Such consistent LAPD abuse drove gays to unincorporated West Hollywood where they were treated slightly better by the L.A. Sheriffs.
But LGBT civilians weren’t the only victims of LAPD abuse. In 1988, LAPD Sergeant Mitch Grobeson courageously filed an historic employment discrimination lawsuit against the department.
Tough guy LAPD Chief Daryl Gates had publicly proclaimed that “homosexuality is unnatural” and rejected gay officers because “Who would want to work with one?” It was later revealed that Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker ran a secret “God Squad” that fast-tracked the careers of like-minded anti-gay Christians.
“After he was outed and harassed at work, falsely accused of misconduct, and had his life put at risk when members of the department intentionally refused to send backup to assist him in a life-threatening situation, Grobeson felt he had to take action, even knowing that doing so would surely lead to further character assassination,” says Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal who worked with civil rights lawyer Dan Stormer on Grobeson’s behalf in what turned out to be 25 years of litigation. “Grobeson didn’t want what happened to him to happen to anyone else,”
Davidson notes: the LAPD settled Grobeson’s 1988 suit in 1993 for $770,000; agreed to revise its nondiscrimination, recruitment, training, and complaint policies and practices; and allowed Grobeson to return to the force. But Grobeson then faced “appalling retaliation for having sued” as the LAPD ignored most of the agreed-upon changes. Grobeson sued again in 2006 and a second settlement of Grobeson’s non-monetary claims was reached in 2007, this time including detailed new training materials and recruitment procedures backed up by amendments to the L.A. City Administrative Code. The legal back and forth continued until 2013.
But out of the L.A. riots came historic change. Mayor Tom Bradley set up the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, which became known as the Christopher Commission, named for its renowned leader, attorney Warren Christopher.
“The Christopher Commission looked broadly and deeply into the LAPD’s culture and discriminatory practices, including receiving a detailed report I authored on the force’s anti-LGBT history and receiving testimony from numerous still-closeted LAPD officers,” says Davidson. “The commission’s recommendations and the consent decrees secured by the Department of Justice were essential to bringing about a department that, although still not perfect, is barely recognizable as the successor to the one Grobeson joined in 1981.”
One of the details from the Christopher Commission Report was the revelation that when officers were dispatched to break up what was described as a gay domestic dispute, the call typed into the Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) was “NHI,” which stood for “no human involved.”
“There’s an important lesson here,” says Davidson. “When racism and police violence against black and brown communities are tolerated, homophobia, transphobia, and violence against LGBTQ people often are present, as well. Efforts to end certain forms of official bias can diminish other forms, as well. All Angelenos, including those of us who are part of the queer community, are better off because of the reforms of the last 25 years.”
Since the L.A. riots, the LAPD has changed dramatically.
“Leadership from top LAPD Chiefs Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck brought on commanding officers who would no longer tolerate open homophobia and, with the support of a more powerful city Police Commission, numerous concrete reforms occurred,” says Davidson. “Some of those reforms include: the number of LAPD officers 15 years ago who were ‘out’ swelled to more than 150; the LAPD’s previously discriminatory scouting program was replaced with an independent LAPD Cadet Program; regular sting operations targeting gay and bisexual men ended; the LAPD instituted now-annual LGBTQ Community Police Academies to foster dialogue with L.A.’s queer residents; and the LAPD adopted rules requiring officers to refer to transgender individuals by the name and gender they prefer and barring searches of transgender individuals to determine their genital anatomy.”
Finally, in 1993, when out LAPD Officer Lisa Phillips received a Medal of Valor for her courageous acts of heroism on April 29, 1992, three tables of lesbians screamed and hollered and the whole room enjoyed their enthusiasm.