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The Last Roll Call

Photo by Ted Soqui
Forest Lawn, Hollywood, 12/4/98

The LAV-25 recon carrier is a buff little ride from the United States Marine Corps' motor pool. Resembling a small tank with tires, the street model comes with a 25mm chain gun, 7.62mm machine gun and, should the theater of combat require some obfuscation, a couple of smoke-grenade launchers. This all-terrain vehicle seats nine and converts from dune buggy to amphibious mode in three minutes. Impressive enough in the field, two of these war wagons had little difficulty turning heads last month as they sat parked in Forest Lawn Cemetery. They were not there to keep the peace among Hollywood's unruly dead, but as part of the services honoring LAPD Officer Brian Brown, an ex-Marine who had won a Purple Heart in Somalia only to be killed by a gang member in Culver City.

Like any war, the one waged against crime is not only a military contest but a conflict of imagery and symbols. And so, as this war has escalated, the "cop funeral" has grown into a spectacle unseen since the days of astronaut ticker-tape parades. Motorcades, helicopters and the
occasional light armored vehicle have become part of the complex stagecraft of this new form of civic spectacle, part memorial, part political theater.

"Our graveside services are emotional and dramatic," former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates wrote in his autobiography, Chief. As with any classic drama, the cop funeral relies upon casts, cos-
tumes, choreographed movement, music, audiences and, of course, a stage. Today, big-city law-enforcement memorials echo the grandeur of John F. Kennedy's state funeral and, like that 1963 event, come complete with riderless horse, missing-man aircraft formation, 21-gun salute and thousands of mourners, most of them attired in an array of uniforms. And just as Kennedy's grimly opulent funeral cortege brought an Old World gravitas to a hatless, short-sleeved country that had not buried a head of state in nearly 20 years, so too do cop funerals return ritual and ceremony to our informal society.

In an age of cinematic violence and malarial sensationalism, the death of a police officer commands the solemn fascination of both the public and the media, occupying a level of veneration once reserved for martyred statesmen. Last year this theater of memorial was mounted four times in Los Angeles, as taps blew in the winter rain for Steven Gajda, under a wilting August sun for Filbert Cuesta Jr. and in the cool autumn air for Brian Brown -- all LAPD officers gunned down by gang members -- as well as for Sheriff Sherman Block, who succumbed to the infirmities of age during a bitter re-election campaign.

The cop funeral seems to provide a catharsis for an insecure public afraid that its safety and moral values are under attack. (This obsession with such ceremonies is hardly confined to the United States: According to the Canada NewsWire Web site, more than 130,000 people turned to the Internet last August to witness a live cybercast funeral of a slain Toronto detective.) But why is this so? America remains the world's lone superpower and has been locked in the grip of economic prosperity for nearly a decade. Moreover, crime rates have been dropping across the country for the past few years and, contrary to popular belief, the on-duty mortality rate of California law-enforcement officers has declined slightly in the 1990s in comparison to the previous three decades, possibly
the result of safer cars, better training and the use of bulletproof vests.

Yet we act as though the republic were about to be consumed by molten anarchy. Part of our emotional response is a reaction to the cruelty of these highly visible deaths. Who, after all, will forgive the day in August 1997 when Sheriff's Deputy Shayne York was shot point-blank in the head by one of two robbers -- in the presence of his fiancée and fellow deputy, Jennifer Parish, for the sum of $11 and Parish's engagement ring? When York was buried in a cemetery overlooking L.A. Harbor and Sheriff Block presented his family with the American flag, the entire ceremony became a silent condemnation of crime run amok.

And the scope of commemoration continues to grow: Each May, as part of National Police Week, statewide tributes are held in California, while locally the LAPD and LASD conduct separate memorial ceremonies. Services and monuments for fallen officers are spreading throughout the city; exiting Councilman Richard Alarcon, for example, recently requested $170,000 from L.A.'s public-arts funds for a police and firefighter monument to be erected in the Valley. Not all monuments are big: Last fall a Walk of Fame­type star was dedicated outside the Hollywood Division station for a bike-patrol officer who died of injuries sustained in an on-duty accident.

 

It may not be an entirely surprising development, then, that slain police dogs are increasingly the subject of elaborate funeral rites involving priests, eulogies and bagpipers. Such deaths have also become the focus of public- policy controversies, as when the demise of a New Jersey K-9 cop named Solo provoked calls to make the killing
of police dogs a special offense -- one mandating stiffer
penalties than the killing of "civilian" dogs.

This past August, one year after York's interment, the vanguard of a serpentine motorcade of mourners entered Whittier's Rose Hills cemetery to lay Officer Filbert Cuesta to rest; the motorcade was so long that funeral organizers were getting calls from the site of the services, miles away in Diamond Bar, where firemen who were still in the parking lot of Calvary Chapel wanted to know if they had any chance of making it to the cemetery in time for the
burial. It is the sheer size of the ensembles and the martial choreography that animates them that lend these pageants their Wagnerian atmosphere.

The difference, though, between an event merely populated by a large cast and a genuine spectacle is the orchestration of props and music that resonate with the power of the state. Nothing epitomizes this better than when four helicopters fly over the cemetery and one of them peels off in a "missing man" formation, and when a seven-man detail gives the fallen officer a 21-gun salute. More than any other sound, the three volleys of gunfire recall the violence involved in law enforcement's never-ending war on crime. (Typically, the shots in the first volley are a little out of sync, but they become more uniform by the second; by the third, they sound like a single loud rifle discharging.) After the thunder of the helicopters, the bark of the rifles and the sad finality of taps, the mournful wheeze of bagpipes sweetens the cemetery air.

Dr. Debra Glaser is a psychiatrist who works for the LAPD's Behavioral Science Services and has been with the LAPD for 18 years; she says the police funeral serves the same role as any funeral, and "gives some pomp and circumstance, and dignity, to the officer's death. It provides closure and camaraderie for the officers, but I don't think it does anything for the officers' anger or sadness." Which explains why the cop funeral, though not officially a closed ceremony, is usually attended only by an audience of fellow officers and their families, plus civilian employees and a generous contingent of politicians. Its biggest audience sits in front of TV screens.

Fire-department funerals, on the other hand, are very public events. The reason for this lies in popular perceptions about the nature of the fireman. For no matter how community-oriented a particular police department may be, no matter how friendly its individual cops are, in our minds they remain people with guns whose role is to
enforce laws -- a few of which most of us will break in our lifetimes. Not only that, but the police station will always be an intimidating place, equal parts fortress, arsenal and jail. The fire station, on the other hand, shares the same folksy, Rockwellian canvas with the general store and slum hydrant-turned-fountain. The engine company is a place of mascots, polished brass and lifesaving equipment -- no fireman's ax is ever swung in anger.

Last March, when Captain Joseph Dupee became the first LAFD member in 14 years to die in the line of duty, a massive line of vehicles rumbled by the charred building on Western Avenue in which Dupee had lost his life -- a symbolic confrontation with the scene of tragedy. Then it linked up with hundreds of marchers who had assembled at Florence and Vermont in South-Central for a five-block parade, led by drummers, to Station No. 57 on Vermont and 77th Street, and, following a brief service, another block to the Crenshaw Christian Center's Faith Dome. In other words, the ceremony was concentrated in the neighborhood Dupee served, and its residents were invited to participate.

Later that month, when three LAFD men died in a helicopter crash, along with the young girl they were flying to a hospital, an even larger force of mourners turned out. (The funereal fly-over, for obvious reasons, was skipped at the families' request.) Then, LAFD personnel assembled near USC and later hooked up with a line of fire engines that had rendezvoused from two different parts of the county. The procession moved to the Sports Arena, whose entrance was guarded by a colossal arch formed by two crossed ladders that extended from their trucks.

 

Unlike that of a police
or sheriff memorial, the pageantry of LAFD funerals is focused on the silent parade of uniformed marchers and trucks. The casket is borne through the city by a fire engine with an empty seat, its grille adorned with a black wreath and the fallen firefighter's coat. Inside the service's venue, the stage is meticulously decorated with the imagery of the deceased's past: His coats, equipment and commendations are displayed before a dais, above which, depending on the venue, his image hovers on giant video monitors. A ceremonial brass bell stands nearby to ring 10 times as a "final warning" to the gathered (a more subdued version of the 21-gun salute), followed by taps and recessional music.

Although fire departments do not suffer the number of casualties that police agencies do, their funerals have undeniably also become more elaborate. When asked if he could recall ceremonies as large as those held for Captain Dupee and Michael
McComb, Eric Reiner and Michael Butler, LAFD Captain Steve Ruda replied, "Never. The ones we saw in March had more of a back-East flair." The LAFD, nevertheless, is more media-savvy about these events than law enforcement, supplying full press kits to reporters -- packages that feature a cover graphic with the deceased's badge and, inside a folder, his photograph and biographical information, the march route, floor plans and seating charts.

Just as Kremlinologists once scrutinized the occupants of the Bolshoi's box seats or the saluting order on Lenin's tomb, so too do we
carefully note who attends or doesn't attend a
police officer's or firefighter's funeral. The beginning of former LAPD Chief Willie Williams' precipitous decline is widely pegged to his tardiness in returning to L.A. from a Las Vegas vacation following the shooting death of an LAPD officer early in his tenure, echoing Leon Trotsky's blunder in not returning from his Caucasus holiday to attend Lenin's funeral.

And at Officer Cuesta's burial, there passed a moment from Greek tragedy as Chief Bernard Parks, sitting a few feet away from Cuesta's coffin, faced the massed ranks of officers with whose union he was locked in mortal combat, like King Creon before the Thebans at Eteocles' grave. Beneath the blistering sun, Parks rose from his chair, a fearsome apparition in his midnight-blue uniform and gun belt, to present the American flag to Cuesta's widow.

For that matter, who could forget the charged scene, last March, in which LAFD Chief William Bamattre, himself the target of union charges that he wasn't standing up to the mayor, broke down in tears at the podium? It was a moment that might have betrayed one man's weakness to this macho audience -- except that at that very moment the Sports Arena was filled with sobbing men.

Sometimes more than words of sorrow are heard from the eulogist's podium -- sometimes the anger of the fallen's comrades finds its voice. At LAPD Officer Brian Brown's memorial, one speaker sternly noted that it
wasn't the reporter who won battles on the field, but soldiers like Brown; it wasn't the poet who safeguarded freedom of speech, but the fighting grunt; just as it wasn't, the speaker continued, the campus protester or the lawyer who guaranteed our freedom to burn the flag.

Civilian funeral planners could certainly take a leaf from law enforcement. The ceremonies for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, himself a former LAPD lieutenant, might have been an inspiring mixture of mourning, politics and history, an event in which the city paused to reflect on how far it had come in the time since Bradley was first elected. But this didn't happen, because the arrangers of Bradley's funeral did not add to it the pomp of a funeral procession, or even a motorcade; there was no tolling of bells, no citywide moment of silence. In other words, no ceremony and symbolism.

The funeral itself was held at the First AME Church, a culturally fitting venue, although no more than 1,500 people could attend. However, on Sunday, the day before the burial, Bradley had lain in state in the L.A. Convention Center and not at City Hall, a politically and architecturally more respectful environment. (San Francisco's Beaux Arts rotunda had been transformed into an unforgettable tableau mort following the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk; even in that cavernous space the two men's coffins, surrounded by wreaths, generated an unbearable claustrophobia of sorrow.) The Convention Center's South Hall resembled nothing so much as the food court of a shopping mall, and in the space of seven hours a mere 6,000 people filed past Bradley's open coffin -- while outside, Mayor Richard
Riordan posed for photographs with the public and signed autographs.

 

Once in a very great while, someone who is both cop and civic leader dies in office. On a Sunday morning 14 months after attending Shayne York's services, Sheriff Sherman Block lay in a coffin onstage at the Hollywood Bowl. Although better known as the home of musical events and fireworks displays, the Bowl was an apt site: It was a public space but a dignified one; it was rustic, yet it was also "Hollywood," befitting the sheriff's celebrity associations. (Norm Crosby was listed as a pallbearer, while Buddy Hackett was identified as an honorary one.)

Block's flag-draped, open casket lay in the shade of a canopy, surrounded by several large floral commemoratives, the most recognizable of which were two flanking arrangements shaped as LASD badges; these six-pointed stars posed a double-entendre, given Block's Jewish faith. After the coffin lid was closed, Rabbi Henry E. Kraus began the memorial by reading a prayer in Hebrew and reciting the 23rd Psalm in thickly accented English. Then "My Way" was belted out by a uniformed deputy, the first of the morning's several incongruities.

There was a somberness in the autumn air, however, and it came, again, from the presence of politics. More specifically, the presence of the state's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates, among other office seekers, 48 hours before Election Day, along with the sitting governor. Again, heads swiveled, attendances were noted -- especially that of Block's mild-mannered nemesis Lee Baca. Supposedly, Baca had been requested by Block supporters to stay away from the ceremonies, yet here he was. What would happen now? Would Baca speak? Would he dare to approach the family?

But more conspicuous than anything was how unreal Block's death seemed. Perhaps this was because his campaign supporters had made him seem very much alive that morning -- so much so that at that moment he appeared poised, from the dead, to be re-elected. For two days, at least, an improbable Act 3 to the sheriff's life was in the offing.

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