I will talk to anyone about anything, and not just for the purpose of reporting a piece. I often strike up conversations with strangers, too, though I’m partial to chatting with bartenders, flight attendants, and cops. My guess as to why their stories are always so good is that all three interact with human beings at possibly their most vulnerable moments, from the recently downsized guy drowning his sorrows in a scotch to the flier who loses it at the tiniest bit of turbulence. Cops, though—man, do they have stories. They never know what they’re walking into when they respond to a call. It’s no wonder that more than one officer has told me, “When I hug my kid good-bye in the morning, I hug tight.”
My first encounter with law enforcement was, in classic Hollywood style, a fictional one. The 1970s TV show Adam-12, about a couple of officers who patrol the San Fernando Valley, shot a scene at our house. In the episode the cops, played by Martin Milner and Kent McCord, were chasing a cab that ended up crashing into our ivy—a hidden curb underneath the greenery resulted in both axles breaking on the cab (oops). I was a pip-squeak then but recall the stars killing time in a limo (we watched the show religiously, and it was a big deal to see them in the flesh). The crew gave my dad $150 to use our phone, which was quite a payday on Fulcher Avenue. My next run-in with the law was ten years later, when our house was robbed and an officer came by to dust for prints.
While I remember that officer as a reassuring presence, unfortunately my impression of the police changed when I was in high school for a simple reason: My best friend, James, was African American, and we were pulled over not once, not twice, but three times when he was at the wheel of his car. His suspicious behavior was driving while black. He was never issued a ticket, just a “move along”…and right out of this nice neighborhood. That James was one of the sweetest people ever is beside the point. He was being profiled, and it left him feeling resigned and powerless. As we learned a few years later when the city was in flames during the 1992 riots, that feeling of powerlessness wasn’t unique.
As I entered journalism, I was determined to better understand the LAPD as it reformed under a string of post-Daryl Gates leaders. I even started to frequent the Police Academy’s café in Elysian Park, a diner with such ’50s decor as a horseshoe counter and vinyl seats. I ate pancakes and eggs and eavesdropped on cop conversations that carried on over the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire from the academy’s shooting range. I haven’t visited the café in ages (it’s closed for remodeling now), but I did confess my diner habit to current chief Charlie Beck when I lunched with him a few years ago—he found it both enterprising and strange.
In the May issue (on stands now) Beck talks about the many challenges facing today’s LAPD, among them an uptick in violent crime, police shootings of unarmed victims, and the quandary of patrolling such a large city with such a small force. His dad was an LAPD cop, and so are two of his kids. I can only imagine what that family’s stories are like around the dining room table.