In the early 1990s a small band of steel-booted, shiny-headed thugs decided it would be great sport to beat up pedestrians in San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood, home to many of the city's gay and lesbian residents and business owners.
The criminals' M.O. was simple: sneak up behind their unsuspecting victims and pulverize them with baseball bats and galvanized pipes. They'd take purses, wallets, cash, though it was apparent that amusement, not robbery, was their primary motive. They'd attack anyone, shoppers, diners, elderly couples, teenagers, but it was gay men who absorbed the brunt of the most vicious attacks.
It was just a matter of time before someone got killed.
Which finally happened, two blocks from my home. The victim was a frail, innocent 17-year-old. He'd come into the city with a couple of suburbanite pals to score independently brewed, pre-Starbucks espressos and hang out in one of the city's hippest neighborhoods. The goons beat the kid to death, left his body on the curb.
In response, the LGBT community and its police department launched a "citizens' patrol," the first of its kind in the nation. At the urging of Hillcrest residents, SDPD organized, screened, trained, equipped, and officially supported the citizens' patrol, taking great pains to ensure that its approach would not lead to a Trayvon Martin-type tragedy. (Twenty years later there has been no such incident, even as a citywide program has continued to enroll hundreds of volunteers, including an updated "Stonewall Citizens' Patrol" in Hillcrest and surrounding neighborhoods.)
Enter the Boy Scouts of America. Or, rather, exit the boy scouts.
John Graham, openly gay (when can we retire that term?), Hillcrest's community relations officer, and a police explorer scout volunteer, was tasked with presenting a class in personal protection for the patrol's members. Graham turned to his friend, Officer Chuck Merino of the neighboring El Cajon Police Department to help him teach the class. Merino had impeccable credentials: a sterling record as a cop, expertise in self-defense, the respect of his community and his colleagues. He was also scoutmaster for his department's explorer troop. And he was gay.
Publicity surrounding the new citizens' patrol soon outed Merino. The Boy Scouts of America pounced, immediately ejecting him from the program -- much to the dismay of his devoted teenage charges and their admiring parents.
The Boy Scouts assumed ECPD chief, Jack Smith would replace Merino with a "morally straight," non-homosexual police officer. They assumed wrong. Smith stood tall, and sent the scouts packing. He formed his own police cadet program. And put Merino in charge.
I was the number-two guy at SDPD at the time. Police Chief Bob Burgreen told me the morning after the news hit, "We need to show some solidarity, cut our ties to BSA." He hesitated but only for a moment. "Let's run it by the senior staff first."
Our system, our ethic was to listen to each of the 12 senior staffers -- sworn and civilian, reflecting the diversity of both the rank-and-file and the San Diego community -- especially when it came to controversial matters. No passing, no brown-nosing, no groupthink.
The drama that unfolded was, at least in my provincial world, equal to that of 12 Angry Men.
I'd predicted that half of the senior staff of this urban police department -- in the early nineties, recall -- would voice opposition to our filing for divorce against BSA. After all, several of us had been cub scouts, boy scouts, explorer scouts; as I recall, we even had an eagle in our midst. With 11 opinions recorded I turned to the last person. Commander Jim Kennedy made it unanimous. "If they refuse to stop discriminating, we have no choice," he said.
We instructed the Boy Scouts of America to douse their fires, pack up their tents, and depart police headquarters. It was painful, but necessary.
Today's scouting program, bleeding corporate support and risking its tax-exempt status, is scheduled to announce next month any changes in policy on gay members and volunteers.
It's a lot to hope for, but BSA has a terrific opportunity to add yet another venerable emblem to its 130 badges of merit: one for civil rights and social justice.
By the way, it was a Merino- and Graham-trained citizens' patrol team that spotted the murderous assailants and radioed us. Our officers swooped in and made the arrests, ending the reign of anti-gay bigotry and terror.
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