I have never run across a news story about Los Angeles police in which the police union clammed up and had nothing whatsoever to say about it. Until this one.
Most of those men you see working security at location shoots for movies or TV shows are retired motorcycle cops. Give them just a glance and you'd think they were official. But they're a hybridized species -- looking the part but without full cop powers and not answerable to the LAPD. And they make a very pretty penny, sometimes six figures a year.
Chief Bill Bratton doesn't want these jobs done that way. He wants only active-duty, fully empowered officers coordinated by the department to be the ones moonlighting on sets within the city limits. The productions would pay the LAPD, which would pay the officers, schedule the work, assume liability and take a cut for its trouble. It's not money, Bratton says, it's professionalism, and he will work "aggressively" to make it happen.
See why the police union had no comment? If this were a film, I would be so ready for the pitch meeting: "It's cop versus cop -- a turf war across the Thin Blue Line in the City of Angels. What's at stake? Millions of dollars in movie income and all the craft services food you can eat."
Cops and movies have been tight since Mack Sennett made Keystone Cops comedies in what is now Echo Park and the police helped him do it. Decades later, Dan Cooke, the LAPD's Hollywood advisor, was such good pals with Jack Webb, the creator and star of "Dragnet," that Webb used Cooke's badge number, 714, as the show's emblem.
By the 1960s, the security relationship was firmly entrenched. Studios could summon retired or off-duty cops from independent "wranglers" on short notice, and -- as The Times pointed out in 1986 -- the wranglers "took a cut from the studio pay of each officer whose off-duty work they arranged." One man's finder's fee looked like another man's kickback.
When Daryl Gates was police chief, he didn't like the arrangement any more than Bratton does now, but nothing much changed. Some cops abused the system. Active-duty cops would call in sick on their regular shifts and then show up guarding a movie shoot, making more money there than for an official day's work.
Bratton wants to make sure anyone who looks like an LAPD cop is an LAPD cop. And he's concerned about the abilities and training of the retired movie officers. Eventually, he wants all active-duty cops who moonlight in uniform (it's allowed at 11 places, including the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium) to be hired and paid through the LAPD.
Such change, Bratton told me last week on KPCC radio, isn't "being done willy-nilly. Once we got into it and found out so many issues of concern to us, we were saying to ourselves, 'Why the hell was the department tolerating this for 20 or 30 years?' "
Even with a proposed 10% off the top to pay for running a "contract services" division, Bratton figures it wouldn't cost the studios more and, in fact, would save money.
The retired cops and movie and TV producers are equally vehement that things are just fine. They suspect the LAPD just wants control for its own sake -- and a piece of the action. Location managers e-mailed their dismay to KPCC -- like David Foster of "Desperate Housewives," who said retired officers were a "welcome and reliable asset to productions" and available on a moment's notice, unlike active-duty cops trying to work around their on-duty schedules. Why "fix that which isn't broken"?
Assistant Chief Sharon Papa told me that the LAPD doesn't just want to "say all the retired guys are out of here tomorrow. We'd like to establish criteria and see if they meet it -- phase it in over time and not just kick them out all at once." And when active-duty cops moonlight in uniform, says Papa, "we'd rather know these officers are under our control and supervision."
A few questions come to mind. Production companies and sports teams have deep pockets, but the city's are deeper. Should the city take on more legal exposure for officers' off-duty jobs? And would it amount to private police? If so, can I hire one as my bodyguard?
And here's another question: WWJD? Not that "J," this one: Joe Wambaugh. He's walked an LAPD beat and walked the red carpet when his books have become movies and TV shows. Why, he e-mailed me, can't "the old pro wranglers who have always done a good job ... reach an accommodation with the city by having off-duty cops serving along with the old guys? The retired cops with lots of movie-shoot experience would of course have to accept the orders given by currently serving, off-duty cops. ...
"I understand Chief Bratton's concerns, but the retired cops with decades of experience at the shoots are really invaluable. ... What's wrong with some compromise?"
Thank you, Sgt. Solomon.