The death of Rodney King last weekend has turned the spotlight once again on the Los Angeles Police Department. King was awarded $3.8 million after being beaten by police 20 years ago in an outrage captured on video. The later acquittal of the four police officers sparked riots that killed 54 people and caused $1 billion of damage.
LA’s potent crime cocktail – a restless and sometimes ruthless transient population, widespread gun ownership, and a police force that shoots first, asks questions afterwards – has been tapped constantly by generations of crime writers from Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy. It has also spawned a whole movie genre – film noir.
The LAPD’s colourful, some would say chequered, history, presents a problem for the modest LAPD museum, in an 87-year-old former station in the unglamorous northern suburb of Highland Park.
Most museums – a rare exception is the one in Dallas recording the many explanations for the assassination of President Kennedy – are obliged to present their sponsoring country or organisation in a favourable light. So you will look long and hard to find any mention of the King beating in the LAPD exhibition, although the museum is no advert for the department’s hotel facilities.
It has a row of four cells in the style depicted in umpteen crime movies – iron bars instead of walls, barely enough room for a bed, basin and loo. The interrogation rooms are regularly repainted to meet the requirements of TV shows or movies.
Aside from the cells and the mandatory parade of old uniforms and truncheons, when I visited last week most of the space was devoted to just three notorious crimes: the 1947 Black Dahlia murder, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s 1970s rampage and a 45-minute North Hollywood bank robbery gun battle in February 1997 which was strangely ignored by virtually all media outside LA, maybe because only the two robbers were killed.
Ellroy’s best-selling novel – made into a 2006 movie starring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson – is the starting point for the Black Dahlia (pronounced over here like “darling”) exhibit.
That was a newspaper nickname for Elizabeth Short, a wannabee actress whose naked, mutiliated body was found cut in half in south LA, near the University of Southern California. She had last been seen a few miles away entering the Biltmore – which used to be the city’s smartest hotel and is still not the sort of joint where a gal would want to be seen wearing her second best pair of anything. (Sorry, the noir thing is infectious).
The murder’s fascination lies in the fact that it is unsolved after 65 years, even though people still confess. Or, at least, they nominate a relative. But not yet a success for the LAPD.
The Symbionese Liberation Army was a bunch of right-on left-wing thugs who captured Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress, and persuaded over to their side in what is often seen as the prime example of the Stockholm Syndrome, named after a 1970s Swedish bank robbery. Despite evidence that the SLA coerced Hearst into co-operating, she was jailed for her part in their crimes but pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.
With all that and much more going on in LA, it is a pity that the LAPD cannot divert a little more of its $1.2 billion annual budget to making more of the museum.
Police forces the world over always feel they have better things to spend their money on – like bigger guns and jails – but I’d like to have seen more insight into the thinking behind the street-level tactics of one of the world’s toughest law enforcement agencies. The LAPD has been involved in some ruthless killings in recent months that would have almost certainly been regarded as avoidable in Britain.
Opposition to the US gun culture is growing only slowly from a low base, and is still very much confined to east coast liberals and those of the chattering classes with more than a passing fondness for Europe. Most people I meet never question the “shoot to kill” policy, so the police are certainly not out of step with local feeling.
Unlike in Britain, where householders who attack intruders can be punished, Californians have a right to kill anyone who enters their home without permission, as long as they have “reasonable fear of imminent peril.” So plenty keep guns at home. Bear that in mind next time you take the tour of the movie stars’ homes.
(Pic courtesy of InventorChris via Flickr)