POLICING THE CITY OF ANGELS
Recoil|September - October 2021
A Look at the Los Angeles Police Museum
Steven Kuo

Los Angeles sprawls across roughly 500 square miles in Southern California, surrounded by mountains, valleys,and the magnificent Pacific coastline. As the second-largest city in the United States, behind New York city, it’s populated by around 4 million residents, enjoying its famously sunny, semi-arid, Mediterranean climate.

After the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s, the United States took control of California, and Los Angeles was officially incorporated in 1850. In Spanish, Los Angeles means “the angels,” and the city has garnered the nickname the “City of Angels.”

But for a city with such an idyllic name, it’s had to deal with more than its fair share of criminal activity. In the 1850s, a volunteer police force struggled to deal with a burgeoning population and lawlessness in the dusty, western town. Finally in 1869,the city established its first paid police force, hiring six officers to work two shifts under the direction of City Marshal William Warren.

With the discovery of oil, expansion of industry, and meteoric entertainment business, Los Angeles has grown exponentially since then, as has the Los Angeles Police Department. As of 2020, the LAPD operates a $1.2 billion budget, with nearly 10,000 sworn officers amongst a total of 12,000 employees.

Despite controversies across its over 150 years of existence, the LAPD has been and continues to be on the forefront of law enforcement, public safety, and community engagement in Los Angeles. And with such a wide scope and large budget, the LAPD has also been on the cutting edge of tactics and equipment.

THE LOS ANGELES POLICE MUSEUM

In 1989, an organization was formed to create a museum to memorialize and commemorate the notable history of the LAPD, eventually becoming the Los Angeles Police Museum, located at the former Highland Park Police Station — just off the 110 freeway, north of downtown Los Angeles and west of South Pasadena.

This station was built in 1925 and served the community for nearly 60 years until it was closed and fell into disrepair. Since restored, it’s now a National Historic Landmark, home to the Los Angeles Police Museum and open to the public.

Climbing up the front steps and entering the heavy front doors of the historic building, you’re transported back in time. Snaking around a corridor, you’ll find some very interesting experiential elements — in particular, the formerly active holding cells (with separate felony and misdemeanor sections), whose archaic discomfort and starkness you can sample for yourself. The design of the times was essentially a simple exposed cage with bars all around, including the ceiling — discovered to be a serious design flaw as prisoners could use the top bars to hang themselves. The main floor contains various exhibits detailing SWAT (established by LAPD after the 1965 Watts riots), civil unrest in the Los Angeles area, motorcycle units, and a fascinating collection of handcuffs and restraints, among other items.

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