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Coalition protests LAPD plan to take over film set security

September 03, 2008|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood's production community is yelling "cut!" to a plan by the LAPD to take over the jobs of handling security -- many of which are filled by former cops -- on film sets.

A coalition of labor and industry groups, including the Teamsters and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, is seeking to block the Los Angeles Police Department's effort that would force production companies to hire only off-duty active police officers to control crowds and direct traffic at film locations.

The so-called movie officers, who don official LAPD uniforms, sport badges and guns and frequently sit astride motorcycles that look like they cruised on "CHiPs," are ubiquitous on location sets around the city. Unknown to casual observers, however, most of them are no longer working police officers.

Police Chief William J. Bratton has cited concerns that the retired officers who handle those jobs aren't accountable to the department.

But union officials, production workers and studio executives say such a change would raise filming costs and create scheduling bottlenecks that could further erode the local movie and TV production industry. In the last decade, L.A. has seen a steady outflow of feature film projects to other states and countries, many of which offer lucrative production rebates that aren't available in California.

"We feel this proposal . . . will just be another step backward in our ability to continue to film here in L.A.," said Ed Duffy, business agent for Teamsters Local 399, which represents location managers, studio drivers and casting directors.

More than 600 location managers, directors, actors and crew members from such TV shows as "Brothers & Sisters" on ABC and "Cold Case" on CBS have signed an e-mail petition opposing the changes in security staffing. The petition will be submitted to the Los Angeles City Council as early as this week.

Additionally, representatives of the MPAA, the Directors Guild of America and the Teamsters have met with several City Council members in recent weeks to convey their concerns and craft a possible compromise.

Retired officer Hal DeJong, president of the Motion Picture Officers Assn., which represents both active off-duty and retired LAPD officers, contends that his members have been unfairly vilified by the department. "The cadre of officers who are out there are highly professional," he said.

The association has about 150 members, 102 of whom are retired LAPD officers. The others are active cops, who work off duty on sets. There are also several dozen others who work as movie officers who don't belong to the association.

Typically, two movie officers are used on film sets to control traffic during shooting, though five or more on motorcycles are required for more elaborate "running shots." The retired officers don't have regular police powers, though they are licensed to carry firearms and must receive a special work permit from the LAPD (they are not to be confused with private security guards who watch over equipment and safeguard the set).

Fixtures on film sets for decades, the movie officers have come under more scrutiny in the last two years amid complaints from neighborhood groups that film permits are not properly enforced. The complaints included such things as companies shooting beyond the hours allowed in the permit and movie officers displaying unprofessional conduct.

Last fall the LAPD assigned a sergeant to make spot checks on location sets.

"The more we started looking at it, the more we felt we need to bring it under the control of the department," LAPD Assistant Chief Sharon Papa said.

DeJong says the department has leveled unfair allegations against Motion Picture Officers Assn. members.

His colleagues have won sympathy from location managers. They praise retired cops for their knowledge of the film business and contend that the LAPD would not be able to supply enough officers to meet their round-the-clock needs and the schedule changes common in the industry.

What's more, they say, the new system would be more costly. Currently, retired and off-duty active LAPD officers who work movie jobs are paid nearly $50 an hour. Critics estimate that under the LAPD plan, rates would jump to $80 or more an hour because of added overtime and administrative costs, although the LAPD disputes those figures.

"We have limited dollars to spend and if our prices go up, then those incentives from other states look better and better," said Larry Pearson, location manager for such TV shows as "CSI: New York."

Ultimately, the City Council will have final say. Several council members said they supported giving the LAPD more oversight but not barring retired cops from film sets. A decision is expected by the end of the year.

"I think this is a situation where if it's not broken, why fix it," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, a former DreamWorks SGK executive.

Papa of the LAPD said any change would be phased in. "We want to get everyone's concerns on the table," she said. "It would look foolish to take this on and have the movie industry unhappy with us."


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