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Plot twist for cops on film sets

Concerned about the retired officers' cozy ties to studios, the LAPD considers using active-duty personnel.

May 16, 2008|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

The star-struck gawkers, paparazzi and businessmen walking by a big-budget film set on Broadway in downtown Thursday could be forgiven for thinking that Bill Todd was a real Los Angeles police officer.

He did, after all, shut down a lane of traffic to make room for the huge trailers and production rigs -- much to the annoyance of drivers. And then there was the matter of the pistol hanging from his hip and the Los Angeles Police Department badge clipped to the LAPD uniform.

But look closely at the 61-year-old bear of a man, leaning against an official-looking motorcycle: The sergeant's stripes on each arm had been ripped off, leaving a faint outline. The bike had no blue emergency lights. On the top edge of the badge, in tiny letters, read "RETIRED."

Todd is one of a long line of ex-LAPD officers who, for decades, have been mainstays on film sets in Los Angeles, directing traffic, escorting car chases and, in general, keeping the city's fantasy world separate from reality. But amid growing concern by residents and LAPD officials that the retired officers enjoy too cozy of a relationship with the Hollywood studios that pay them and are being too lax in enforcing filming permits, a battle over possible changes to the old way of doing things is brewing.

"We do have concerns -- that these guys are just laying around on their bikes, wearing baseball caps, and haven't worked for LAPD for years. People don't know they are retired and don't work for us, but work for the film industry," said LAPD Cmdr. Bill Fierro. "It's a relationship we are looking at and saying, 'What is going on here?' "

Los Angeles police officials, seeking to increase their oversight of film sets, are reviewing the long-standing practice and considering a host of changes, Fierro said. The most dramatic idea is to retire the retired cops and require film crews to hire off-duty, active officers instead. It is part of a larger LAPD proposal under consideration to establish a contract service division that would give the department control over use of off-duty officers at major sporting and other events.

Such talk has angered Todd -- who estimates that he makes $100,000 a year working on film sets -- and the other 150-odd retired cops who have the required LAPD-issued permits to assist movie and TV productions.

"They have not given this enough thought," said retired LAPD Sgt. Brett Papworth, a board member of the Motion Picture Officers Assn. "We understand how this industry works, and the industry trusts us to do our job just like they trust a stunt man to come in and do a stunt fall."

But they are hardly being left to fend for themselves. Hollywood studios are determined to keep them on the job.

Melissa Patack, a vice president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said a wholesale change from retired to off-duty, active LAPD officers would seriously undermine the ability of directors and producers to stay on schedule and budget. Retired officers, who are not subject to the LAPD's strict overtime limits, can remain on set for the typical 12- to 16-hour days. Patack imagines a scenario where producers instead would have to hire multiple crews of off-duty police officers and disrupt shoots to switch them.

"Frankly, that doesn't work for production," she said. "It would tie the hands of production crews."

Patack said the studios welcomed LAPD's move last year to assign a sergeant to oversee the film sets and make spot checks to ensure permit compliance. A push for a blanket ban on retired officers, however, could unleash an all-out battle.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who chairs a council committee currently wrestling with the issue, said he, too, is opposed to getting rid of retired cops. Amid ever-increasing competition from other cities in the U.S. and overseas for the billions of dollars Hollywood spends making movies and shows each year, Los Angeles should be making it easier, not harder, Rosendahl said. He expects a compromise to be worked out in the coming months.

For his part, Todd is resigned to being barred. He acknowledged that some "bad apples" have given the retired cops a bum rap in the public eye, but said he and most others do a stand-up job.

"I bend the rules, but I don't break 'em," Todd said, by way of explaining how he deals with frequent requests by directors to keep working past curfew or to move a camera across the street for a better shot. "My job is to assist the film crew and help make things happen for them, but to make sure no one else is inconvenienced."

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.

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