The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has had a colorful and sometimes controversial history, and has been celebrated in television and movies. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan paid a visit to a museum that chronicles the LAPD story.
The Los Angeles Police Museum is housed in an old station house, and it tells the tale of a lawless western town that slowly developed into a modern city.
Los Angeles got its first paid police force in 1869, and part of the department's early history is shown in an exhibit of handcuffs, locks and other restraints. Glynn Martin, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, points to three exhibit cases, opposite a row of empty jail cells.
"Some great stuff, and it dates back well into the 1800s at the start of handcuffs," he noted. "We've got things like balls and chains. And we've got foreign and domestic handcuffs, and different types of restraints used throughout more than a century of the history of handcuffs."
Martin, a retired LAPD watch commander, points to a police radio from the 1950s, and a modern vehicle-mounted computer. Further on are the lights from a police patrol car and, upstairs, old uniforms. One from the 1890s features a helmet like those still worn by some British police patrolmen.
The exhibits also show the interplay of the LAPD and Hollywood. There are two wallet badges with the picture-identifications of two fictional detectives from the radio and television show Dragnet. The show's creator, Jack Webb, played the lead role of Sergeant Joe Friday.
Martin says a spin-off series called Adam-12 would also bring the department into the homes of Americans.
"For us, what it meant was the LAPD came into the living room of folks that had TV sets," he recalled. "The trials and tribulations of a day-to-day detective and all the trappings that went along with that were now in the living room, and that could definitely increase the understanding of what it meant to be a police officer here in Los Angeles during that time."
The department has been featured in many movies, including L.A. Confidential and the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series. An LAPD officer, Joseph Wambaugh, became a best-selling writer of police and crime stories.
The museum also tells the story of a real-life incident in 1997, when two heavily armed bank robbers battled police for 44 minutes in the North Hollywood section of the city.
As police radioed for reinforcements, the bank robbers fired some 1,200 rounds ammunition in a ferocious shootout caught by television news cameras.
"We are the final resting place for material relating to that case, meaning we have on exhibit the clothing worn by the robbers, and the weapons carried by the robbers as well as weapons carried by the officers that responded to that day and were able to keep these folks from getting out into the community and doing any more damage than they did," he said.
Ten officers and six civilians were shot, but luckily, none died. One robber committed suicide and the other succumbed to his wounds as he lay in the street. Outside the museum, two bullet-riddled cars round out the story. One was driven by the robbers, and the other by a police sergeant who was wounded in the fierce exchange.
The LAPD story has more than its share of heroism, but it also has its dark side, from corruption in the department's early days to the scandals and racial incidents of the 1990s. The police beating of a black motorist named Rodney King would spark citywide riots in 1992, after a jury acquitted four accused officers. The museum does not highlight these topics, but Martin says visitors sometimes raise the issues.
"And it was one of the things that we had to address early on as a historical society, certainly before we had a museum, was dealing with people that asked questions about some of our less savory portions of our past," he explained. "And our board [of directors] resolved and I'm a firm believer in it, that we need to tell the story warts and all."
And the LAPD story, says retired officer Glynn Martin, is well worth the telling.