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Walls of Glory and Shame

December 15, 2002|Susan E. Seager | Susan E. Seager is a 1st Amendment lawyer in Los Angeles.

I got my first real job at Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department's headquarters. Not as a cop; as a journalist working for a local wire, City News Service. It was just a part-time job, Saturdays only, but I wrote front-page news, about murders and earthquakes and gangs.

I loved the Parker Center press room the minute I walked in. Hidden in the back corner of the first floor, it was an obstacle course of gray metal desks piled high with old newspapers and white paper printouts from chattering wire service machines. It was dusty and hot. Police scanners squawked loudly in a code I didn't yet understand.

City News' veteran cop reporter, Norman "Jake" Jacoby, gruffly showed me the ropes. He curtly taught me to listen to the police radios and to call, at least once each shift, the watch commander at all the divisions of the LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and suburban police departments. I learned later that his crankiness had nothing to do with me; he talked the same way to the cops, too.

For the year or so that I worked at Parker Center, first with City News and later as a full-time reporter for United Press International, I was at the center of some of the city's most traumatic events, from the capture of "Night Stalker" serial murderer Richard Ramirez to the arson fires that blackened the historic Central Library -- twice. Once, on a hunch, I asked a homicide detective whether a single killer might have been responsible for a seemingly unconnected series of murders and rapes of women in their homes in the San Gabriel Valley. "Could be," came the reply. It wasn't until many killings later that law enforcement told the public what police authorities had known for a while: A drifter from Texas named Ramirez was the Night Stalker.

Even after I left the cop beat, the LAPD dominated stories I wrote, including the trials of the officers charged with beating Rodney King. I'll never forget hearing an LAPD official testifying that it was not excessive force to beat King because a reasonable police officer would have interpreted his writhing movements on the ground as offensive martial arts moves.

Now they're talking about tearing down Parker Center -- an "aging" building that is five years younger than Mayor James Hahn. I just assumed someone would step forward and protest. It may not be classically beautiful, with its modernist boxy shape, its blue-tiled column supports, its no-comment windowless facade and tropical blue-green glass flanking its sides. Named after Chief William H. Parker, architect of the modern LAPD, the headquarters has been featured as a backdrop in countless cop shows and movies. But more important, it is a reminder of our tumultuous history with the LAPD itself.

"The Glass House" looks pristine in the black-and-white photographs featured in the 1958 book "The Badge," written by "Dragnet" creator Jack Webb. But on April 29, 1992, it was surrounded by angry protesters and riot police in the wake of the news that the officers who beat King had been acquitted of criminal charges in Simi Valley. I was at home with a new baby that day, but I can just picture then-Chief Daryl F. Gates leaving Parker Center that evening to attend a political fund-raiser on the Westside even as he learned of rioting across the city.

My decidedly unsentimental spouse can't understand why I'm upset. "What are you saying, that every building that you worked in should be preserved?" he asked. I couldn't get a rise out of the Los Angeles Conservancy, either. A staff member told me that the organization could not take a position on Parker Center's threatened demise until it conducted some research.

A recent visit to what is now called the Norman 'Jake' Jacoby Press Room revealed the same dusty, messy place I had left. UPI's desk had been abandoned, its old police scanners cannibalized, its printer unplugged. Al Leone, a City News reporter, told me that his outfit and The Times are the only news outlets that still operate desks in Parker Center. Someone created a little shrine on my old UPI desk for Nieson Himmel, a Times police reporter who died in 1999. Everyone liked Nieson. Sporting a headset long before Madonna, Nieson had sources all over the Southland who tipped him off to small plane crashes, gruesome murders, fires likely to become wildfires and anything else that was newsworthy.

On my former desk, someone had placed a stack of his old yellowed newspapers, a dusty box of his business cards and photographs of him with his ubiquitous reading glasses perched on his massive bald head. Nieson's car was legendary. When I worked as a "copy boy" at The Times, it was our ritual to spot his car parked on 1st Street, a battered old sedan filled to the gills with newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes, mainly Count Chocula. His house too was stacked floor to ceiling with papers. Once it caught fire when he wasn't home. I took the call when the Los Angeles City Fire Department called the press room looking for him.

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