LA Police Museum

As Adam Vine investigates, the LA Police Museum cops a thin blue line between fact and Hollywood fiction. And what’s missing tells the real story.

By Tony


April 3, 2020


from the August 12, 2019 issue of the Yes Plz Weekly

If you’ve seen Parks and Recreation, Fletch, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, or any number of other shows and movies, you’ve seen the LAPD Police Museum. 

It sits just west of Figueroa Street, on a sun-bleached stretch of York Boulevard that hasn’t been fully gentrified yet. The building marks the eastern edge of the Highland Park Art Walk, but the museum doesn’t open for the Art Walk. Its visiting hours and admission price make for a narrow audience: 10am-4pm Tuesday to Friday and, oddly, the third Saturday of the month, from 9am-3pm. 

What’s the purpose of this museum, then? I went to find out. 

I decline the audio tour and take a map. I learn from the plaques up front that the Northeast Los Angeles police station (Station #11) opened in 1925 and closed in 1983. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and reopened as a museum in 2001.

Like any museum, the LAPD’s museum is composed of collections and exhibits, yet these have more in common with the Museum of Jurassic Technology than a science museum. The curators interpret the history of the LAPD in a narrative written in collections of guns, handcuffs, uniforms, badges, and vehicles, as well as its dedication to Hollywood fictions about the department and the fictions of selective memory. 

The Museum contains no real estate relating to Rodney King, Ezell Ford, Eulia Love, the Rampart Scandal, the ensuing Justice Department oversight, or the decades of mass incarceration they have imposed upon communities of color in Los Angeles. The Museum devotes no space or time to the Watts Rebellion of 1965, when, in Mike Davis’ words, “Southcentral Los Angeles exploded in rage against police abuse and institutional racism.”

Instead, the Museum relies on a dated assortment of cardboard cutouts, mannequins, CD-ROMs, and the memorabilia of disgraced men. Three main “exhibits” focus on the Symbionese Liberation Army, the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout, and the Onion Field, a case from 1962. The SLA robbed banks, kidnapped and assaulted Patti Hearst, and lost in a shootout on 54th Street with the LAPD in 1972, among other things. As the exhibit explains, the LAPD SWAT team includes the number 54 in its insignia to commemorate this. The North Hollywood bank robbers took their inspiration from the ultra-violent thieves in Michael Mann’s Heat (1992), and the Onion Field incident was turned into a best-selling book of the same name by Joseph Wambaugh, which became a TV movie. I looked around for onions, but all I saw were mannequins in body armor and lots of guns. 

If the museum is a monument to anyone, it’s a monument to Daryl Gates. In a certain way, that makes sense. Gates left his fingerprints all over the department. He created SWAT and D.A.R.E., after all – the former introduced military weapons and tactics into police work, and the latter put police officers in public schools all across America. There’s a D.A.R.E. car in the museum’s vehicle collection, a D.A.R.E. time capsule from 1988, but no hint of the many studies that have shown D.A.R.E. to be ineffective, even counterproductive. 

Museum visitors can view Gates’ 1982 Award for Excellence by the stairway that leads to the second floor. 1982 was the same year Gates championed the use of chokeholds (the City had banned them) and made his infamous comment to the LA Times, saying, “We may be finding that in some blacks when [a chokehold] is applied the veins and arteries do not open as fast as they do in normal people.”

This casual brutality might have been noted when, at age 16, Daryl Gates was booked at the Highland Park station for punching a police officer. The jail cells where he was briefly held still line the ground floor. Unbelievably, Gates returned to the station as the captain in charge of it in 1963 and became Chief in 1978. He resigned in disgrace after the 1992 uprising. There’s no trace of that at the LAPD Museum – only his laurels.

I search in vain for the check for 00,000 that Gates was ordered to pay personally to the Larez family in a police brutality case. (The City Council covered the fine.) I find neither the ‘gang injunctions’ that Gates championed, which criminalized and displaced thousands of young men of color, nor the 2017 decision by a Federal judge that challenged their constitutionality. 

As Mike Davis puts it in the preface to City of Quartz, his history of Los Angeles: “In a city tragically full of armed and angry teenagers, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’s ‘Operation Hammer’ – with its Vietnam-like neighborhood sweeps and indiscriminate nightly harassment – was universally viewed as a deliberate provocation to riot.” I don’t see City of Quartz on sale in the gift shop, but copies of Robert Schirn and Steve Cooley’s Blue Lives Matter are stocked aplenty, along with .50 caliber shot glasses, coasters, flasks, fidget spinners, and challenge coins.

The other chief in the museum’s pantheon is William H. Parker, namesake of the recently demolished Parker Center and the longest-serving chief: 1950-1966. Daryl Gates was his driver. The museum lauds Chief Parker for “professionalizing” the LAPD and coining the term, “thin blue line.” That was the name of his TV show. 

A retired helicopter sits behind the museum between the D.A.R.E. cruiser and a bullet-pocked sedan from the North Hollywood Shootout. Chief Parker introduced the use of police helicopters in the U.S., and these birds have now become a fixture of Angeleno skies. Parker served as Chief during the “Bloody Christmas” beating of seven prisoners in 1951, referred to residents of Watts as “monkeys in a zoo,” and demanded the closing of the Mexican border. 

I climb the stairs to the cramped 3 floor Boeckmann Gallery, where a DVD plays on continuous loop. Narrated by former Charlie Beck, the DVD still identifies him as chief even though he retired in mid-2018. Beck was Daryl Gates’ godson and, upon Gates’ death, Beck called him “a one-in-a-million human being,” but that’s not on the DVD, and I could find no family tree that traces the lineage of Parker, Gates, and Beck.
\tIn that small gallery, a chronology on the wall provides the only mention of less flattering events in the Department’s history. Downstairs at the entrance, I pick up the museum’s quarterly newsletter. Writers of The Hot Sheet share an uncanny ability to make passing references to traumatic events of enormous significance. The most recent issue commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Department. It includes a chronology that begins with the creation of a paid force in 1869, elides the killing of the first police chief by one of his own deputies, yet remarks on a 1926 budget cut as if still angry about it.

The entry for 1991 reads: “Rodney King arrested in Foothill and officers [sic] use of force became an issue.” Became an issue? Officers from LAPD and California Highway Patrol cruelly beat and Tased Rodney King, and that “became an issue” because it was captured on videotape, which immediately went pre-internet viral. 

The next sentence in the description of 1991, the one that follows the becoming of an issue, says, “Officer Tina Kerbrat becomes first female officer killed in the line of duty.” While every death is a shame, this commemoration reads like a naked attempt to justify the use of force against Rodney King. 

Indeed, the museum speaks fluent Hollywood, in storylines of heroism and danger. With Onion Field, the SLA, and the North Hollywood Shootout, the LAPD is never defeated; it’s simply outgunned – “A thin blue line” protecting the city from criminals. This continues to be an effective narrative for the LAPD to expand their budget. They received at least .2 billion from the City of LA in 2018-19, which accounts for more than 10% of the entire city’s budget. 

Fortunately, rent is cheap and the museum makes do with less. Upon its founding, the City Council granted the museum a 30-year lease for a year. The Police Museum was founded by a retired LAPD homicide detective, who also began the Los Angeles Police Historical Society in 1989. He initially told the L.A. Times that the museum would feature displays on LAPD scandals. Without those true stories, the museum’s empty jail cells become a hollow re-enactment of systemic incarceration in Los Angeles County, which houses the largest jail complex in the world, and the museum’s focus on fiction becomes central.

Dragnet (1952-59, 1967-70) and ADAM-12 (1968-75), both produced by Jack Webb, presented a sanitized version of the LAPD to millions across the U.S. With so many shows about police officers now, the ones that launched the genre can be forgotten, but the LAPD Museum hasn’t forgotten. Exhibits about these shows occupy central space on the second floor. When Webb died in 1982, Daryl Gates retired the badge number, 714, that Webb’s character used on Dragnet and ordered the LAPD to fly flags at half-staff.   

These TV shows belong in the Police Museum. They were produced, after all, with the full cooperation of the Department, and their influence on popular culture is undeniable. Saluting these fictional depictions of the department instead of some harder truths, however, reveals a disturbing trend of erasure and self-delusion. With its banker’s hours and minimal attempts at interactivity, this museum is no slick attempt at public deception; it’s an in-group hall of mirrors.

I step onto York Boulevard and look back at the old station. Two flags hang above the entryway, the American Flag and the “Blue Lives Matter” flag. The latter is also known as “the law enforcement memorial flag.” It consists of a black and white American flag, save for one blue stripe, one thin blue line: Chief Parker’s words made literal. 

The LA Police Museum does not amaze with technology or its commitment to the truth but rather with what it omits and what those omissions reveal. As such, the museum stands as a testament to the outsized role of policing in Los Angeles and American society, at our peril and expense. This museum belongs in a museum.


A partial gallery of what you won’t see at the L.A. Police Museum

Watts Rebellion 1965CSU Archives/Everett Collection

The Watts Rebellion, 1965
In the words of Mike Davis, “Southcentral Los Angeles exploded in rage against police abuse and institutional racism.” The arrest of 21-year-old African-American Marquette Frye triggers the Watts Riots from August 11-16, 1965. Here, policemen force a man into a police car, as looting, burning, and rioting sweep the area. A policy of mass arrest and widespread curfew for South Central Los Angeles was instituted during this time that resulted in 34 deaths and 0 million in property damage. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection

Congress of Racial Equality sit-ins at Los Angeles City Hall. Police arrest 16 protesters demanding the resignation of police

Racial Inequality, 1960s

Chief Parker integrated the LAPD in 1961, 13 years after the U.S. military, but he sought to enforce a segregated city. He and his department cracked down on interracial dances that featured rock and roll music, but no evidence of that exists at the museum. During the Congress of Racial Equality sit-ins at Los Angeles City Hall in August, 1965, police arrest 16 protesters demanding the resignation of police chief William H. Parker. Many felt he contributed to the causes of the 1965 Watts Riots. CSU Archives/Everett Collection

LBJ during Vietnam War, White House Photo Office

Vietnam & Police Brutality, 1967
June 23, 1967: While President Lyndon B. Johnson stands in the spotlight at the President’s Club Dinner, walking to the podium at Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles, 15,000 demonstrators peacefully march to the area in the city’s then-largest anti-war gathering. They are subsequently attacked with nightsticks by police on motorcycles. “The bloody, panicked clash left an indelible mark on politics, protests and police relations,” wrote the L.A. Times in 1997. “It marked a turning point for Los Angeles, a city not known for drawing demonstrators to marches in sizable numbers.” Not only did Johnson limit future public appearances, but the tide of public opinion toward the war had also turned. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto; Collection: White House Photo Office, Public Domain.

A plainclothes policemen arrests an African American leaving Los Angeles Black Panther headquarters. Los Angeles police

Public Disorders Intelligence Division, 1970-1982

A special police intelligence unit formed in 1970, the PDID “maintained surveillance on every suspicious group from the Panthers to the National Council of Churches.” Ordered disbanded in 1982, spying and investigative abuses had continued, despite earlier efforts to curtail controversial practices. For PDID, ideas were considered worthy subjects of police inquiry. Here, a policeman arrests an African American leaving Los Angeles Black Panther headquarters. LAPD surround the headquarters after they tried to serve a search warrant on the premises. The siege lasted four hours as the Black Panthers held police off with automatic weapons before surrendering. Dec. 8, 1969. CSU Archives/Everett Collection


Rampart Scandal, 1990s

The eye-raising chain of police misconduct known as the Rampart corruption scandal was ignited by Rafael Perez. The Rampart Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gang unit was filled with drug-dealing rogue cops shaking down gang members and framing innocent people. The tentacles of this scandal reached from undercover officer Frank Lyga shooting and killing officer Kevin Gaines in an apparent case of road rage, to deep relationships with Death Row Records. State Librarian of California Kevin Starr wrote in his history of California in the 1990s that “CRASH … became, in effect, the most badass gang in the city.” Wikipedia Commons

LA riots - Gene Blevins, ZUMA Wire

Los Angeles Riots, 1992

April 29-May 4, 1992. Following the not-guilty acquittal of policemen on trial in the beating of Rodney King, riots erupted throughout Los Angeles. In total, 55 people were killed during the riots, more than 2,000 were injured, 11,000 arrested, and  billion in property damage. Gene Blevins/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

May Day protest 2007

May Day Melee, 2007

In this noted immigrant rights march of 25,000 Angelenos and a second rally of 6,000 at MacArthur Park, the LAPD, in its own report, accepted responsibility for forcibly breaking up the gathering and having injured 246 people with baton strikes and hard rubber bullets. After pressure from the Mayor and the community, LAPD Chief William Bratton apologized, 17 officers faced penalties, and the LAPD paid more than 3 million in damages. Skuchamenz Skuchamenz/Creative Commons. 

Ezell Ford protest

Shooting deaths of Ezell Ford, Charly ‘Afrika’ Leunang, Eulia Love, 2014
About 800 protesters gather downtown in front of the Los Angeles Police Department to protest the officer-involved shooting of Ezell Ford in South Central Los Angeles, as well as to show support for residents of Ferguson, Missouri. Chants of support for the Ford family included pleas for charges to be brought up against the officer involved in the shooting. Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo


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