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After 38 Years, a Farewell to Arms at Firestone Sheriff's Station : Law enforcement: Facility was first in county to put African American deputies in patrol cars. It has been rendered obsolete by more modern posts.

December 26, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LYNWOOD — On a bright October day in 1955, 5-year-old Joe Martinez stood among 10,000 spectators gathered for the largest parade ever in the Florence-Firestone area. The spectacle marked the opening of the county's first sheriff's station, a state-of-the-art facility that was a prototype for stations that would follow.

Martinez didn't know it then, but the Firestone Station would become an integral part of his life. Nineteen years later, he joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and was assigned to the very station whose opening he celebrated as a child.

Today, 38 years after the floats, bands and tanks rolled down Florence Avenue, the Firestone Station is set to close, to be replaced by yet another state-of-the-art facility in Lynwood. With paint peeling from its walls and its once-shiny floors faded and scuffed, the Firestone Station has been rendered obsolete by 22 more advanced facilities constructed since 1955.

Firestone's personnel will be merged with Lynwood Station deputies at a new, larger facility at Alameda Street and Imperial Highway. The consolidation, expected in March, is designed to save money for the cash-strapped county government.

Even now, the Firestone Station is a ghost of what it was. Prisoners are housed at the Lynwood facility. Boxes filled with everything from books to old pictures are piled throughout the concrete building at 7901 S. Compton Ave.

Throughout its history, the Firestone Station has been steeped in tradition and sometimes clouded by controversy. Hundreds of deputies have passed through its doors, and thousands of suspects have been booked there.

It was the first sheriff's station in the county where African American deputies were allowed to ride in patrol cars; it was also the first in the county to be commanded by an African American captain. It was the scene of protests against police brutality in 1980. Its deputies have endured two deadly riots and done everything from deliver babies to mourn colleagues who were killed in the line of duty.

"There you had the spread of human condition that goes from birth to death," said Sheriff's Chief Duane T. Preimsberger, 53, whose first patrol assignment was at the Firestone Station in 1963. "It was like the last frontier. It was just a fascinating place to work."

Designed by James H. Garrott Jr., a prominent African American architect whose family had longtime roots in South-Central, the Firestone Station was considered the most modern law enforcement facility of its time. The $450,000 structure featured a "show-up room," where victims and witnesses--with the aid of adjustable lighting--could view suspects under day, dusk and night conditions. A one-way glass prevented the suspects from seeing others.

The station had a booking room where suspects were photographed and fingerprinted, and there were separate jail cells for misdemeanor and violent offenders. Before that, arrestees were booked at the main county jail Downtown at the Hall of Justice. The station also had a "blast proof" underground command center that could be powered by auxiliary generators to be used in the event of any disaster.

"When we got there, it was like moving into a mansion," said retired Capt. Ralph Wyatt, 79, the first commanding officer. Previously, he and about a dozen deputies were housed in a cramped office near Alameda Street and Firestone Boulevard.

Like the rest of society at that time, the Sheriff's Department was grappling with integration. For the most part, black deputies were only allowed to work at the jail at the Hall of Justice.

Because of the new station's location, several retired black deputies recalled, they were allowed to work there. It was near Central Avenue, the hub of the black community in Los Angeles at the time, and covered heavily African American neighborhoods in Watts and Willowbrook.

"If blacks rode patrol cars, they worked at Firestone," said Clydell Hill, 69, a retired deputy who came to the station in 1956.

Hill and other African Americans assigned to Firestone in the late '50s recall some resistance from white deputies who did not want to work with them or who thought that they were not capable. But for the most part, they said, black deputies were accepted on an equal basis.

"There were some tensions, but I don't seem to remember any serious problems," Hill said.

Almus Stewart, 70, who came to the Firestone Station in 1959, remembered being defended by a white sergeant when a woman refused to let him enter her front door after she called officers to report a theft.

"She said she didn't want that 'colored boy' coming through her front door," recalled Stewart, who retired from the department in 1975.

Stewart remembered the stern-faced sergeant looking the woman straight in the eye and saying: "Ma'am, we don't hire colored boys. We just hire deputies."

Having received their start at Firestone, many black deputies went on to serve with distinction.

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