The cops have patrolled together for more than 28 years, one behind the wheel, the other riding shotgun, scanning the streets of northeast Los Angeles for signs of trouble.
Both are bald with mustaches, as set in their ways as a married couple. Duarte, the smoother talker, is first to approach a suspect or defuse a tense situation. Marinelli, whose “aw shucks” demeanor masks a sly wit, hangs back to stand guard.
They are friendly or fearsome, depending on what they think you deserve. Homeless people and street vendors get a pass. Car thieves do not. Their adversaries call them Los Dobermans, the Doublemint Twins, Heckle and Jeckle.
In the Los Angeles Police Department, partners typically last a year or two in the same car. Sometimes, working styles clash. More often, someone gets transferred or promoted. A decade together is long, three unheard of.
Patrolling in Cypress Park on a late afternoon last fall, they recall the tragedy and mayhem they have seen on these streets. They point to the alley where Marinelli fatally shot an armed man in 1993. Around the corner on Bank Street two years later, a 3-year-old girl was killed by gang members.
This is one of the last days Harold Marinelli and J.C. Duarte will work together. Marinelli is leaving for knee surgery, then retirement.
“I’m always right, and he’s always wrong,” Marinelli says.
“I always let him think he’s right — just like my wife,” Duarte responds.
In June 1988, when the two young police officers climbed into a black-and-white for the first time, their chemistry was immediate. They were the same kind of cop, itching for a caper, obsessed with catching car thieves. No need for promotions or to check out other stations. All they wanted was to work Northeast Division together.
Supervisors tried to break them up. They resisted. Once, they joined a vice squad to avoid being paired with novice cops. When they returned to patrol, they took a demotion, losing two stripes and 5% of their pay to stay together.
Spending all day, every day cooped up in a car with the wrong person can be hellish. One officer wants to run after a suspect while the other insists on summoning reinforcements. One may power through a whole shift without a break, while the other gets cranky without his customary burger stop. In a dangerous situation, partners move in an improvised choreography, wordlessly reading each other’s intentions.
“If you don’t gel, you can hardly wait for that day to get done,” says Jack Richter, a sergeant in media relations, whose longest pairing lasted two years.
Like a good marriage, a good police partnership can thrive off differences. Duarte, 53, speaks Spanish and is better at writing reports. Marinelli, 58, is the quiet one who notices the detail others miss — the one that leads to the bad guy.
Duarte is a meticulous record-keeper, jotting down every hour of overtime the partners have worked. A black binder holds mug shots of every person they have arrested — page after page of scowling photographs, a rogues’ gallery of northeast Los Angeles.
There was the suspected robber who led them on a car chase in 1998; the woman they arrested almost a dozen times for drug offenses in the early 2000s before she turned her life around; the boxer known as “Eddie the Animal,” whose freedom ended when the partners spotted him in Highland Park on Jan. 3, 2006, and arrested him on a burglary and robbery warrant.
At the station, they are the Baldies, who pepper roll calls with jokes and are admired for their old-fashioned “obs skills” — the ability to size up a situation at a glance.
A few years ago, the partners were driving around Cypress Park, looking to pick up some overtime, when they spotted a man molesting his niece in a parked car. They later took the girl to Disneyland.
Before their second-to-last shift together, Duarte produces a worn, folded paper from his shirt pocket — a list of suspects wanted for crimes ranging from drinking in public to carjacking. They hardly need the list. They know the career criminals, and the criminals know them. Through a combination of cajoling, joking and toughness, they have forged wary but friendly ties.
“We have a decent relationship with everyone on that list,” Duarte says.
They chased Alan Ferguson for years. Now, Alan Jr. is on the list. Same goes for Nick Placentia Sr. and Jr. One of their most-wanted has been homeless for nearly 30 years.
They know who the suspects are dating, where they buy their beer — where they are likely to be.
In 2005, Duarte was patrolling solo and stopped in a parking lot to do some paperwork. He glanced up and saw a woman wanted as an accomplice to a murder. He knew her from the days when she was homeless and using drugs. He addressed her by name.
“Hey, Kerry, how are you? I’d like to talk to you, but I need to put handcuffs on you first,” he remembers saying as he arrested her.
As they drive across the Metro train tracks in Highland Park, they reminisce about a recent encounter there.
A man on the train was suspected of stealing a cellphone. They positioned their car to block the train, which was moving slowly before it stopped. The man ran, and Duarte wrestled him down on the tracks.
The victim got her phone back, and the suspect went to jail. Duarte hurt his knee and missed months of work.
“We don’t charge over multiple fences anymore, but we’re still as eager and anxious to make that outstanding arrest, to catch that car thief,” Duarte says.
In their patrol SUV, papers containing details on suspects and stolen cars are jammed into the passenger side sun visor. An automatic license plate reader pings like ice cubes clinking in a glass.
On his right hip, Duarte’s gun flashes in a gleam of silver. It is a six-shot revolver, a relic from generations ago.
The streets are not as rough as they once were. A rainy Sunday can go by without a single 911 call. Rents are up. The new residents are more likely to pay $8 for a fresh squeezed juice than to gang bang.
For a few hours each day, they walk a foot beat between Avenues 50 and 60 on Figueroa Street. They remember when La Cuevita, a Mexican-themed lounge, was Richard’s Hofbrau and attracted members of the Vagos motorcycle club.
The liquor store with the landmark “Coldest Beer in Town” sign recently became a high-end deli. The shelves are stacked with kale chips, wheat crackers and organic bourbon. A roast beef sandwich with yuzu kosho dressing sells for $15.
Duarte and Marinelli have been dropping by the liquor store since 1997. But they are not wedded to the past.
“I like the way Fig is going,” Marinelli says to the new owner.
Back on Figueroa, they greet a homeless man with wild hair.
“Your feet are pretty clean for being barefoot,” Marinelli says.
The man makes an observation of his own, pointing to the six stripes on Marinelli’s sleeve. Each represents five years on the force, Marinelli explains.
“Wow, I respect that. I bet you’ve seen some [things],” the man says, using a profanity.
They used to reward themselves with a cinnamon roll for each stolen car arrest, until they racked up 14.
“We stopped that destructive tradition,” Duarte says.
But a treat is still in order, Marinelli says. “Ice cream?”
“Italian doughnuts,” Duarte suggests.
“Let’s change the subject. You’re killing me,” Marinelli responds.
They have stuck to the same routine for over two decades.
Tuesdays: their favorite taco truck in Eagle Rock. Wednesdays: split pea soup at Astro. Thursdays: pizza at Palermo’s.
Their home lives are as stable as their work partnership.
Duarte has been married for 30 years, Marinelli for 28. Each man has two grown daughters. They own dogs from the same litter. Both favor Hawaiian shirts on special occasions.
Marinelli always had a mustache. Duarte eventually grew one. First Duarte shaved his head, then Marinelli followed suit.
“I was going bald anyway. I save so much money on hairspray,” Marinelli says.
They are a dying breed — cops who worked the 1992 L.A. riots, before some rookies were born, who used the now-forbidden chokehold to subdue suspects, who lived by their wits, not by computerized deployment plans.
“I’m still doing the same thing — playing cops and robbers, getting the bad guy. All I ever wanted to do was work the street,” Marinelli says.
Marinelli has no second thoughts about the fatal shooting in Cypress Park more than 20 years ago. The 26-year-old man pointed a handgun at him, and “it was either him or me.”
“The rule is you go home alive,” Marinelli says.
While their peers graduated to desk jobs and higher salaries, the partners stayed put. In their world, the street cop reigns supreme.
“You do this job, you either like it or you don’t,” Duarte says. “The people who don’t like it promote.”
To the end, Duarte and Marinelli remain as hungry as ever. Their technique involves a dose of obsession — a daylong stakeout for a car thief, or driving by a stolen vehicle five or six times to capture a suspect.
“They’re the last of how old-fashioned police work was done — not new technology or gadgets but years of field training and observation,” says Gina Paialii, a senior lead officer in Northeast Division.
Capt. Arturo Sandoval, who leads the division, has known the partners since he was a sergeant there in the 2000s. In their last year together, they are still among the hardest working officers at the station and among the leaders in arrests. Their commendations for arresting car thieves number in the hundreds.
“They could have been detectives, sergeants, all of that,” Sandoval says. “They were happy just working Northeast, especially as partners.”
At Marinelli’s retirement party in March, Duarte emcees in a “Los Dobermans” baseball jersey.
A cartoon of the partners, titled “The Los Angeles Police Department’s Longest Working Partners ‘Ever,’” lists some of their achievements in recent years: 16 homicide arrests, 76 robbery arrests, 199 grand theft auto arrests. There is no official confirmation that they have been together the longest. But LAPD veterans are hard-pressed to name a partnership that lasted more than a decade or so.
Cmdr. Bob Lopez, one of their supervisors in the early 1990s, wanted to break them up so each could train a younger officer. They fled to vice. Lopez now admits he was mistaken.
“I realized their partnership was magic,” he says.
Duarte will finish his career next year. In the meantime, he has a new partner.
For more news on the Los Angeles Police Department, follow me on Twitter: @cindychangLA