BY KAREN OCAMB | Rob Saltzman may be one of the most important, least known gay men in Los Angeles. A man of strong principle deeply rooted in constitutional law, this week Saltzman is ending his nearly 10 years of service on the Los Angeles Police Commission. It was Saltzman who finally ended the LAPD’s seemingly intractable partnership with the department’s Learning for Life youth program, sponsored by the proudly anti-gay Boy Scouts of America.
Saltzman’s gay predecessors Dean Hansell and Shelley Freeman worked hard to sever ties with BSA, pointing out that the Scout’s longtime policies refusing to allow openly gay troop leaders, even Eagle Scouts beloved by their troops, and the organization’s perversion of the founder’s term “morally straight” to keep gay kids out of the organization, violated the city’s own non-discrimination policies. In hearings and reports, they proved that the LAPD could support its own Cadet Program.
But while the LAPD and its chiefs steadily moved towards greater “tolerance” and acceptance of the LGBT community after the forced resignation of Chief Daryl Gates in 1992, none seemed willing to cut the ties until Chief Charlie Beck. In fact, the commission voted to sever ties on the same day L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Beck’s appointment.
It was a quietly monumental moment. As was April 12, 2012, the night when the Saltzman, Beck and LA Police Commission President Richard Drooyan helped roll out the first-ever Transgender Guidance for the LAPD at the Chief’s regular LGBTQ Forum. The three-page “Notice to All Department Personnel regarding: POLICE INTERACTIONS WITH TRANSGENDER INDIVIDUALS” was also a result of years of pressure—this one originally brought by Transgender Menace activist Shirley Bushnell in the early 1990s. The Notice was developed by the City of Los Angeles—the Mayor’s office, the human relations and police commissions, the LAPD—and the LAPD Transgender Working Group comprised of longtime transgender advocates.
“This is a victory for all of us,” said Karina Samala, director of the LAPD Transgender Working Group. “This is a new LAPD.”
But would it have happened without Saltzman’s leadership on the Police Commission?
Saltzman is justifiably proud of both achievements.
“I do think the Cadet Program (getting rid of the association with the Boy Scouts and their discriminatory policies) and the transgender policies were both significant, particularly for the LGBT community,” Saltzman said by email on Thursday. “But both also helped the LAPD to become more open and understanding of the diverse populations they serve. And, of course, by serving as openly gay, I hope I played a small part in changing people’s attitudes and perceptions of LGBT people.”
Small part, indeed. Appointed to the commission by Villaraigosa in 2007, and subsequently the mayor’s only appointee to the L.A. City Ethics Commission, Saltzman had no choice but to be a man for whom “doing the right thing” is an ethical and moral obligation, no matter what it might cost him in gold stars with law enforcement or the city’s political cool kids.
A Harvard Law School graduate, Associate Dean of the Gould School of Law and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Southern California since 1988, he’s been responsible for supporting students and teaching them classes on Legal and Professional Ethics and Responsibilities, Evidence, and Legislation. He’s also an expert on “the importance of affirmative action, and the inherent value of diversity to the quality of legal education diversity,” according to his LAPD/Police Commission biography.
In 2011, President Obama appointed him to the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars to advise the White House and Department of Education on promotion of excellence and achievement in education.
Saltzman has also served on a slew of boards of directors, including the LA LGBT Center, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and the Board of Directors for the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute.
Saltzman’s service illustrates how exercising professional judgment without fear or favor does not mean an LGBT person needs to deny or leave a significant part of themselves in a closet at home. In Sept. 2008, during the brief exuberant window before the passage of Prop 8 stripped away the constitutional right to marry for same sex couples, Saltzman, then 53, married his longtime love, Edward Joseph Pierce, 56. As reported by the New York Times on Sept. 19, 2008, the two—who met at Harvard Law School— were married “at the home of a friend, Dr. David Sanders, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Another friend, David C. Codell, who became a Universal Life minister for the event, officiated, and a third, David Bohnett, led the ceremony.” Pierce was retired general counsel and vice president for legal affairs of GeoCities, the wildly successful Internet company founded by Bohnett.
So when Saltzman watched the various Prop 8 protests from curbside, he was there in the streets not only in his responsible capacity as Police Commissioner, but with a quiet vested interest, as well. As a city officer whose memory extends back to the federal Consent Decree, Saltzman wanted to make sure LAPD officers treated Prop 8 protesters with respect, and make sure protesters and police alike got home safely to their families.
Edward J. Pierce died last year, on October 22, 2015, peacefully surrounded by family and friends. He and Saltzman had been together 36 years.
“Ed’s skill and expertise are credited with helping GeoCities become one of the most successful internet sites of its era,” says the obituary in the L.A. Times.“Subsequent to his career at GeoCities, Ed continued to devote himself to his husband, Rob, as well as being a major financial and volunteer contributor to a number of organizations, in particular, GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network….Ed leaves this world a better place, and he leaves behind a wide circle of family and friends who are inspired to honor his memory and his heroic struggle.”
“I miss him terribly, but I am so lucky to have had such a great relationship for so many years–and then finally to have been able to marry legally,” he says.
Saltzman, too, has exhibited a kind of quiet heroism in insisting that he fulfill the mandate of his job as Police Commissioner, even as others disagreed. Perhaps as a result, Saltzman was the only commissioner held over by Eric Garcetti after he became mayor.
Saltzman is now ending his second term and, as the L.A. Times points out, he’s had his share of instances standing alone on principle. “It was 2014, and [LAPD Chief Charlie] Beck had proved himself a popular leader. But Saltzman was concerned by some of the chief’s recent actions, including a decision to only suspend a well-connected officer caught uttering a racial slur and a failure to promptly alert commissioners about officers who had tampered with recording equipment on their patrol cars,” The Times wrote. “Days later, Saltzman was the only police commissioner to vote against re-appointing Beck.” Saltzman praised Beck when warranted, as well.
Saltzman ruffled the feathers of powerful people, but, The Times notes, “current and former colleagues as well as police outsiders credited him with asking tough questions intended to make the LAPD better.”
“A commission that doesn’t ask questions, that doesn’t press the department, that doesn’t occasionally disagree and ask for further changes in policy, isn’t doing the job of civilian oversight,” Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told The Times. “It’s just a rubber stamp. And Commissioner Saltzman wasn’t that.”
Saltzman says he is proud of his service, especially “focusing on biased policing (racial profiling and also bias based on other factors (for example, appearance, perceived gender identity, sexual orientation).) The Department still has not concluded that any allegations of biased policing are ‘founded.’ In other words, every biased policing complaint so far has been determined by the Department to be lacking merit (or simply cannot be proved). Clearly the LAPD must do a better job in this area. The vast majority of cops do a great job, but it simply is not true that there are no instances of biased policing.”
And while he may have upset some of the rank and file, Saltzman focused intently and very carefully on each serious use of force by the LAPD. “ I believe we have made good progress in reducing the uses of force and in appropriately evaluating those uses of force that occur,” he says. “But there are still too many uses of force and too many officer involved shootings. I am proud that we increased and improved training on issues related to de-escalation and appropriate uses of force.”
And as a gay man who witnessed the arc of history from anti-gay Gates to a more pro-LGBT LAPD and a Police Commission full of LGBT allies, Saltzman is also proud of addressing new officers graduating from the LAPD Academy. “My message to them was twofold: (1) even if we are different from you, that should not make us suspicious. The officer needs to appreciate who the citizen is so the citizen can understand what the officer would like the citizen to do. It starts with treating everyone respectfully. (2) When we say “protect and serve,” we mean not only to protect us from criminals, but also to protect our constitutional rights (for example to protest lawfully, including protests against the police),” Saltzman says.
He is aware that his departure means there is no openly LGBT person now sitting on the L.A. Police Commission—once a significant demand of the LGBT community. Attorney Cynthia McClain-Hill has been named as his replacement.
“There is no question but that our being at the table has a significant positive impact on policy decisions. It is crucial that we continue to have such representation,” Saltzman says. “Having said that, I do think the current make up of the Police Commission is very supportive on LGBT issues. President Matt Johnson in particular has reached out to the community, and I know he is serious about keeping a focus on issues of concern to our community. The other commissioners are also all very positive on LGBT issues.”
But is that the same as having an LGBT person of the quality, conscience and commitment of a Rob Saltzman serving the greater community?
“Angelenos owe commissioner Rob Saltzman an enormous debt,” former Police Commissioner Shelley Freeman, Saltzman’s immediate gay predecessor, said in an email. “In nearly a decade of service, he’s been a fierce advocate for all of our communities and in particular our LGBTQ community. He has stood out as an independent, principled and courageous voice, willing to take on the issues even when standing alone. He knows that good public safety isn’t just about crime statistics–it’s about the relationships between police officers and our communities.”
His friend, gay philanthropist David Bohnett, concurs. “Rob Saltzman served with grace and guts and distinction during his nine year tenure on the Los Angeles Police Commission,” Bohnett said in an email. “Commissioner Saltzman made it a hallmark of his tenure to increase the transparency and accountability of the use of force cases that came before the Commission. The citizens of Los Angeles and particularly those in minority communities are better served by the LAPD due to Rob Saltzman’s long and committed tenure on the Commission.”
Hopefully, Saltzman can now absorb the appreciation of a grateful LGBT community.