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COLUMN ONE : Taps for an L.A. Police Legend : A gritty, ramshackle station house is closing today. Officers recall a crazy sort of pride in a fortress that never let comfort get in the way of fighting crime.

March 03, 1995|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If these walls could speak, they might first wheeze, from age, and then groan, from the sting of countless bullets.

And then the stories would tumble forth: How on nights when all hell was breaking loose, nights when the city was in flames, the ramshackle brick police station on 77th Street--bad lighting, bad roof and all--managed to cope. How through two riots, a pipe bombing and all too many rip-roaring, gangbanging, gunslinging weekends, outmanned and over-stressed officers of the Los Angeles Police Department gathered here to wage some of their fiercest struggles in the war on crime.

The tales go back 70 years, replete with many a triumph and tragedy, and many a moment just plain bizarre. Toward the end, the cramped, antiquated precinct house became the butt of jokes: an impossible place to do an impossible job. But it also stood for an attitude, a dogged perseverance, that helped to define the very character of law enforcement in a changing, trouble-marred metropolis.

It was tough out in the streets, where murders and drugs were reshaping the city core, and it was also tough indoors at 77th and Broadway, where confiscated rifles and Uzis piled up in the leaky basement and investigators often toiled without winter heat, waiting for an open phone line, waiting sometimes an hour just for a chance to use a computer.

"If you could work 77th," boasted former Detective Dennis Pagenkopp, who did just that for five years, "you could work anywhere in the city . . . any police department in the world."

Although that sentiment still holds, an era is ending: The 77th Division station house, the oldest in Los Angeles, closes today, soon to be razed. For two years, police serving an 11.8-mile swath of South-Central will work out of trailers and modular buildings, awaiting construction of a $26-million showcase with miles of elbowroom, a tree-lined courtyard and state-of-the-art equipment.

It is high time, say the officers whose feet helped wear dark footpaths across the ancient floor tile of the watch commander's office. Still, many are leaving with regret. They took a crazy sort of pride in a station like no other--a no-frills, Jack Webb kind of place, a place where creature comforts never distracted from the job at hand. To many, 77th was police work boiled down to its essence: everyone pulling together, because so much was stacked against them.

Friendships took root that have lasted for decades. Even some of the most hard-boiled veterans admit to a certain sentimentality, even sadness, because they are pretty sure that it will never quite be this way again.

"You hate to say goodby to this place," said Sgt. Ken Hornick, who is proud of his spot in history: the last watch commander, scheduled to end his shift at 7 this morning. Hornick was hanging around Wednesday during his off hours, just savoring memories. Behind him, like a feature out of the eccentric Winchester House, a set of stairs rose to nowhere, a dead-end: a reminder that there once was a second floor, condemned and torn down several years ago.

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Now, even the banister is gone, ripped from the wall to expose gaping holes. Clocks have disappeared, as have door placards, bricks and a drinking fountain. Souvenir hunters are picking the place clean. A sign on the booking cage, a narrow glass-and-chain-link enclosure where suspects were logged in day and night, warns everyone to keep their mitts off: The whole thing is going, intact, to an LAPD museum.

In the last week, officers reached into a wall over the watch desk and removed a time capsule planted in 1957. One of the names on the buried watch sheet was an up-and-coming sergeant named Tom Bradley--later the mayor, perhaps the biggest star among the thousands of officers who have served since 1925 in the city's most storied station house.

Character runs through the whole building--from the basement "dungeon," a dingy enclosure where officers sometimes bunked for the night, to the Spartan lobby, where the portraits of slain officers form an understated tribute. In the detective wing, ceiling leaks have brought down sections of acoustic tile. There are long banks of desks--the room holds 40 investigators--but it is never difficult to locate the Area Latent Print Officer, better known as the ALPO man: The fingerprint station is marked by a dog food can and cardboard arrow, both hanging by a chain from the light fixture.

Exposed pipes and air ducts and bare bulbs hang over a short row of jail cells. Here, drunken, righteously angry men would stand cursing and threatening mayhem. That was particularly true on the inaugural day of the 1965 Watts riots, when 60 or 70 men were jammed into custody by 8 in the morning, recalled former Officer Rolph Lucke, now 66. It got so bad that harried jailers had to use Polaroids to photograph looting suspects and bits of evidence--radios or liquor bottles.

Buses had to be hastily dispatched to ship the overflow Downtown.

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