By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Upstairs, there’s a video of a guy shooting himself in the head.
Well, the neck, really, and then into the head. But that doesn’t kill him. It’s the LAPD bullet that hits him simultaneously in the shoulder, piercing his body armor and severing his spinal cord that does it, that does everybody a favor. At least everybody who was in North Hollywood in February 1997, when two hell-bent, ninja-looking freaks wearing ski masks and bullet-proof vests and wielding automatic weapons invaded the Bank of America. Here at the Los Angeles Police Museum and Community Educational Center, they have a whole exhibit room dedicated to the horrendous, pointless crime that left 11 wounded (nine cops, two civilians) and — amazingly and appropriately — nobody dead but the perps.
Downstairs, there’s something else going on.
People are lining up to get into the jail cells of the museum, housed in this quaint Highland Park substation. Closed down as a working law-enforcement concern in 1983, the structure is now the last of L.A.’s classic, 1920s-built cop encampments. A book has brought us here, a new collection of beautiful, wrenching, previously unseen crime-scene photographs from the LAPD archives of the last hundred years, appropriately titled Scene of the Crime. The black-and-white shots are Mathew Brady–cum–Weegee stark and striking. Police Chief William J. Bratton wrote the forward, and underworld auteur James Ellroy penned the intro.
Both are here to sign the coffee-table book, and some 300 eager crime fans are gathered to have the duo work their respective Sharpies. The line is long, so I wander around the place. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s movie Blood Work, you’ve seen where I wander. Clint’s people fixed the joint up and filmed here, returning it to its vintage, polished-wood vibe. At the front desk sits one Cal Drake. With a name like that, you’re either a porn star or a detective. He is the latter, retired now from bunco and narcotics since ’76, volunteering his time at the museum. The Eagle Rock native actually did an overnight stint behind bars here in the ’40s, for some mild teen hijinks.
"It was a kid thing," he says, chuckling, arms folded across his chest. "No big deal."
I ask what he thinks of the public’s interest in a book of crime-scene photographs.
"They like that sort of thing. Otherwise all these cop shows wouldn’t last." Not that he watches them. "Most of ’em are garbage."
Through 24 years on the force, Drake saw his share of crime scenes, gawked his share of dead bodies.
"If they’re fresh, it don’t bother me," he explains. "But you get somebody who’s been dead a week or two in a room somewhere, there’s nothing that smells like that. That’s why I never worked homicide. Don’t have the stomach for it."
He pauses, grimacing.
"Anyway, I play a lot of golf now."
Drake greets some uniformed officers who walk into the substation. Detectives mill about, too, clad in suits that vibe plain, off-the-rack authority, and even a couple apparently undercover guys with four-day beards, rumpled clothing and guns. There are lots of well-trimmed mustaches, lots of guts — the figurative kind and the kind that hang over gun belts — and lots of quiet, clubby Cop Attitude. I see a few butch female officers with severe, shaved-up-the-back hairdos, a direct fashion descendant of the civilian girl-mullet. They all seem to know each other, these men and women, and everything I overhear is exactly what I think cops would say, just like on TV. All those garbage shows. Chummy references to old assignments in various L.A. precincts — Newton, Rampart, Hollywood — talk of har-de-har-har past cases and mutual LAPD acquaintances.
In a narrow hallway, I hear a detective tell a uniform, "Hey — I got those Manson photos. Nice prints. Not too graphic."
I make my way outside and join the line under the space heaters, along with cops and citizens, most clutching the book. The man next to me offers that he’s here for Bratton, not Ellroy.
"Let’s just say I appreciate a guy who came here from New York and didn’t turn the cars blue and white." Okay. When we reach the entrance, they’re selling hot cider, coffee and cookies, a buck a pop. They’re letting in four people at a time, just like the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. I breach the arched deco entrance and wend my way past wall-mounted LAPD history, including a framed copy of the August 1961 prison "Dos and Don’ts."
Among the Dos: "Inmates having a contagious disease, or vermin, must notify officers immediately."
Among the Don’ts: "Wrestling, arguing or ‘playing around’ is strictly forbidden."
My quartet moves forward. Bratton and Ellroy sit at tables in front of the old cells, signing away. The chief, laid-back in casual short-sleeve uniform. Ellroy, shaved head, wearing small, round Bertolt Brecht glasses and exhibiting random, jaw-clenching facial twitches combined with startled anemone-style lip movements. They’re taking their time, being friendly with the fans, inscribing whatever the people want. I get up to Bratton with my book, and open it to page 83, a 2/23/38 photo of a bartender who’s just taken slugs to the chest: lying on the floor, eyes open, tie askew against starched white shirt. Not gory at all, really. His wristwatch is there on his left arm resting over his stomach, apparently still ticking away, as he is no longer.