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Last Call at the Short Stop

Police: An LAPD hangout for 25 years, the bar is closing as a result of notoriety from the Rampart scandal.

December 14, 2000|OFELIA CASILLAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rampart scandal, which has shaken the Los Angeles Police Department to its core, may soon take an unlikely casualty: the Short Stop bar on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.

Close to Dodger Stadium and the Police Academy, the Short Stop has been a favorite after-work hangout for patrol officers and detectives for more than 25 years. It is an informal museum of police lore, its walls lined with badges and glass cases filled with police caps.

But in the last year, the Short Stop has played an unwanted role in the Rampart investigation, as the place where now-disgraced former Officer Rafael Perez said he celebrated such illegal exploits as unjustified shootings. Since then, some police customers have stayed away out of fear of being watched by internal affairs investigators. Others have stopped coming because they say the old carefree atmosphere is gone.

So the Short Stop is scheduled to hold a reunion for patrons on Friday night and then close Dec. 31, unless a buyer is found soon.

Nostalgia is thick, along with the feeling among some fans that the Short Stop is unfairly suffering because of Perez. Some off-duty officers are wearing T-shirts that bear the message: Save Our Short Stop.

"It's just that times have changed," said 61-year-old Mike Balmer, who has owned the bar since 1974.

"In the 1970s, '80s and '90s business was good. This deal with Perez caused [officers] to go from work to home, afraid to stop by and have a beer. The whole department has changed. These people are held to such weird standards that it's put a damper on business."

Det. De Waine Fields, a 20-year LAPD veteran, recalls earlier days of brotherhood at the Short Stop.

"It was a lot of camaraderie," he said. "After years, people start transferring to different stations, and that was just a place like a reunion," Fields said. "It was a place with really no strangers. You knew who was in there on a first-name basis."

The bar's lease expires at the end of the month. With business down, Balmer does not want to stay on and is talking to potential buyers, who will have to negotiate with the landlord. But Balmer says that he does not think the police traditions will remain intact under a new management.

The Short Stop is busy during baseball season, when Dodger fans and stadium workers drop by. But Balmer said: "You can't run a business making money six months out of the year."

From the outside, the Short Stop presents a fairly anonymous face, next door to a bail bondsman. However, walk in and you instantly know you are in a police hangout.

Framed pictures of retired officers from years past hang on the walls. Badges from all over the United States announce past visitors' homes: Iowa, Colorado and New York. Rows of lockers the size of shoe boxes offer a secure place to lock up guns.

Next to a pool table is a glass case with awards created by bar regulars--such as the gold-colored sculpture of a gun pointing toward a foot (dedicated to an officer who accidentally shot himself in the foot).

A bullet hole through the front door marks a piece of the bar's local fame. In 1983, a man who apparently did not know the Short Stop's clientele attempted to rob the bar with a comb wrapped in a shirt to simulate a pistol. After taking some money from the bartender, the robber was shot four times by an off-duty officer and died on the sidewalk. A sign near the bar's entrance proclaims: Use a Comb, Go to Heaven.

The more recent history of the LAPD has hurt the bar, the owner says.

Perez launched the Rampart scandal when he told investigators that an anti-gang secret police society covered up beatings and unjustified shootings and conspired to put innocent people in jail, according to LAPD interview transcripts.

Perez told investigators that he and other officers would trade war stories at the Short Stop in what Perez described as "riddles" and "private code."

Short Stop owner Balmer insists he knows nothing of such celebrations: "I've never heard a cop [say anything illegal]. I would not have tolerated it."

Balmer says he didn't know Perez well, just exchanging "Hello, how are you?" And he doubts some of Perez's charges of corruption.

The Short Stop was mainly a baseball-oriented bar until the Rampart police station, a 10-minute drive away, opened up in 1966. Its officers began to gather at the bar and attendance increased after Balmer bought it in 1974 and catered to them.

Balmer says it was a place officers could talk about the day's struggles and get them off their chests.

Hollenbeck Division gang unit detectives said they stopped visiting the hangout last year because they felt uneasy about possibly being watched by internal affairs.

Hollenbeck Det. Charles Markel said there's a close tie between the closing of the bar and morale in the LAPD.

Department officials are "more interested in going after us than helping us go after bad guys," Markel said.

But Lt. Horace Frank, the officer in charge of media relations, said it is unfair to say that the bar's closing means there is less camaraderie in the department.

"We have a different breed of officers. You have a lot of officers that do more things from a family standpoint. A bar may not be an appropriate way to do that," Frank said.

Retired Rampart Officer Ron Aguilar says police visited the bar because of the way Balmer created a home for them.

"This place was a major part of my life. People ask, 'Where are you going to go now?' I don't think about it. We're losing a friend here," he said.

"For me, it's a wake. I thought it would last forever. It didn't. Nothing does."

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