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LAPD Museum houses history of city's dark side

LAPD officers reenact the 1963 Onion Field shooting on location, just days after the incident.
LAPD officers reenact the 1963 Onion Field shooting on location, just days after the incident.
Courtesy Los Angeles Police Museum
LAPD officers reenact the 1963 Onion Field shooting on location, just days after the incident.
Police station house 11 built in 1925, now home to the Los Angeles Police Museum.
Peter Gilstrap/KQED

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In the trendy northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, on one end of York Boulevard you’ll find record stores, cafes and hipster boutiques. On the other end you’ll find the Los Angeles Police Museum.

This collection of all things LAPD lives in the city’s last surviving 1920s station house, and offers a visceral glimpse into the gritty hell and Hollywood noir of the L.A. cop world. For The California Report, Peter Gilstrap has the story

Even if you’ve never been here, there’s still a good chance you’ve seen the place. With its classic Neo-Renaissance, just-the-facts-ma’am, architecture, the structure has been a shooting hot spot for decades, and not just the kind with bullets.

“Major motion picture-wise, 'Gangster Squad,' it was out last year, filmed here,” says Glynn Martin, the museum’s executive director and former LAPD sergeant. “From television, there’s a new show on called 'Playing House,' they were here earlier this year. 'Justified,' 'Parks and Rec'… the original 'Transformers,' 'Flags of Our Fathers,' Clint Eastwood’s 'Blood Work,' 'Dukes of Hazzard 2,' 'Stop Loss,' 'When a Stranger Calls.' It’s a long, long list and it’s a very popular filming location.”

RELATED: Picture This: Inside the LAPD's rarely seen crime photo archives

Martin sits in a small conference room, a space not open to visitors. As with so much in the unique world of the police, the mundane mixes with the extraordinary. On a large table sits a pizza box larger than a manhole cover. A cop-size pie, by God. There are two slices left from the original 44. There is also a carton of cookies. There are no doughnuts.

On a nearby table are small envelopes yellowed with age stacked neatly. They’re filled with negatives from crime scenes — murders, robberies, apparent suicides, all taken in the year 1953, all labeled by some forgotten typist. One example: John Doe, homicide, San Fernando Boulevard rail yard. Hold the thin film up to the light, and there is the mystery corpse in the white areas of the negative, sprawled in the contrasting dark of an empty boxcar.

Police station No. 11 has been home to such items for decades. From 1925 to 1983, the building served as the Northeast Division station. When the cops relocated, it stood vacant, decaying and forgotten. At one point, says Martin, the place was so badly damaged by fire you could stand in the basement and see through to the roof.  In 2001, old No. 11 got a major face-lift and a new lease on life when it was resurrected as the museum. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Raymond Chandler said the history of Los Angeles is the history of its police department,” offers Martin, “and I find an awful lot of truth in that. What I also find is that drives an enduring interest in the LAPD. Really what we’re about are three things: faces, places and cases.”

Among those cases are some of the most notorious in modern memory, incidents that have inspired the work of many writers, including former cop Joseph Wambaugh, Michael Connelly and James Ellroy, who has participated in museum events for years.

“We’re talking Black Dahlia, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Charles Manson case, the Night Stalker, Hillside Strangler, the Onion Field, The North Hollywood shootout, the SLA shootout,” reels off Martin. “These are events of world renown, and I think that is probably the thing that makes this special. Those kinds of things continue to drive interest in what the LAPD is and what they do.”

The museum displays powerful artifacts from those crimes, alongside Hollywood relics. You can see Patty Hearst’s iconic M1 carbine, and the suit coat worn by Jack Webb in the classic "Dragnet" series. Behind the museum there’s a bullet-ridden squad car from a bank job gone bad next to the bad guys’ even more bullet-riddled Chevy Celebrity. Back inside, the hall holds poster-size blowups of Police Beat magazine, featuring Bob Hope and the stars of the classic LAPD TV series "Adam-12" on the covers. You’ll find an undetonated pipe bomb the size of a dachshund, and decades of well-used billy clubs and handcuffs.

Down a hallway you enter a cement room containing five cells that look like a block of gray cages. Back in the day, Martin says the ceiling bars created a hanging hazard. Nearby is a well-worn metal chair. In front of it, at chin level, there’s a rack of numbers.

“Now you can come here and take your own mug shot in a chair that was sat in by thousands of criminals prior to your arrival,” says Martin, as 4-year-old visitor Zyla Delgado plops down in the chair that has held so many law-breaking behinds.

“It’s a big attraction for the youngsters,” Martin says.

Zyla’s mother, Rose, says it’s the first time at the museum for the family, who lives in nearby Montclair. “I’ve never been here before and I think it’s amazing. I’ve seen this stuff in movies but I’ve never actually seen it.” Neither has Zyla, who rockets herself from the booking chair and races into a grim jail cell that boasts a cot, a toilet and a sink. What’s her favorite thing?

“The jails,” she says. Then she screams with glee and runs to another cell.

The biggest draw, however, is upstairs. In 1997, two heavily armed men clad in body armor and ski masks tried to rob a Bank of America in North Hollywood. Both were killed in the ensuing firefight. Their outfits and weapons now adorn two mannequins, complete with bullet holes.

Next to the formidable mannequins, a monitor plays the raw, riveting footage of the entire shootout. “We always warn the school groups and the kids of the material,” Martin cautions. “It’s not bloody or gruesome, but if a kid knows what they’re looking at, it’s probably not the best things for the youngest of our visitors.”

Museum docent Cal Drake knows about being on the receiving end of a bullet. The 84-year-old retired detective joined the LAPD in 1952, and received the Medal of Valor after being shot by Black Panthers during a 1969 raid. He grew up near the station house, though he spent little time in the building during his career. Now he’s here once a week, guiding visitors through decades of crime history of which he was a part.

“I was raised in this division,” he says. “I went to high school in Eagle Rock across the hill here. I didn’t want to work this station. It was a good place to work, good people to work with. I didn’t want to put my neighbors in jail.”

If it seems like reliving some of the highest-impact criminal events of the last century on a weekly basis might be a bit tough on a man, remember that this man was a cop.

“It can be somewhat emotional,” admits Drake, “but not tremendously. When I’m emotional, you won’t know it. That comes from the business, you know?” Thanks to the Police Museum, it’s a business that he is still not distanced from, retired or not.

“This kind of gets you back into the swing of things,” Drake says. “I didn’t want to get that far away from the department, I enjoyed my time on the police department. It was the best job I’ve ever had.”