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Hoisting a Few With the LAPD

<i> Columnist Bill Boyarsky is on vacation. Today's guest columnist is Jesse Katz, a reporter for the San Gabriel Valley section of The Times</i>

Just down from the Police Academy, along Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, is an inconspicuous storefront bar with the feel of a speak-easy. It’s not listed in the phone book. Even its neon sign has been covered with beige paint to discourage attention.

That’s because The Short Stop is a cop bar, one of the Los Angeles Police Department’s most venerable haunts, a stomping ground for followers of the hard-drinking, hard-nosed and hard-boiled ethic.

It is something akin to a “Cheers” for police officers, a watering hole where a cop can shake off the weariness of a day on the streets, find some comfort in fraternity, then build up the moxie to do it all over again. The language is salty, the war stories are full of bravado and the frustrations of the job are evident on every mustachioed face.

“Honk if you’ve been shot at,” reads a bumper sticker behind the bar. “Police officers never miss a beat,” says another. “77th Street eats their dead,” declares a license plate frame.

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Once, back in 1983, some poor, misdirected soul from Compton tried to hold up the place with little more than a comb wrapped in cloth to simulate a gun. An off-duty officer promptly pumped him full of lead, and he was carried off to the morgue.

Belly up to the padded Naugahyde bar where racial and sexist epithets are dished out so matter-of-factly they almost lose their meaning.

The outside world is viewed with deep cynicism. A favorite target is members of the press, who most cops believe are interested only in their misdeeds.

“Goddamn, Commie, pinko, bleeding hearts,” barked a burly officer when the evening news flashed across the TV one night.

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These days, the conversation has also been turning to their beleaguered chief, who presented the bar with a signed placard several years ago congratulating The Short Stop for “still proudly serving L.A.'s finest.”

By most appearances, this would seem to be a bastion of support. Tacked on the wall is a full-page ad from The Times, now thoroughly defaced, that was taken out by the American Civil Liberties Union after the March beating of Rodney G. King.

Originally a call for Daryl F. Gates’ resignation, it has been converted into an imaginative attack on Mayor Tom Bradley.

“Gates is God,” someone has written on the page. “Bradley is a drag queen.”

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But if you hang around while a cop downs two or three or a dozen cold ones, it becomes clear that for many officers this is merely a defensive reaction, a circling of the wagons in the face of attacks from the outside.

These are the troops on the front lines, the guys who see themselves wading through scum 24 hours a day. For them, the department’s top brass is a distant entity that is easily swayed by politics. Their only contact with officialdom comes when they really screw up.

“I could give a (bleep) who the (bleeping) chief is,” one seasoned detective said on the night that Gates announced his 1992 retirement. “It’s all a bunch of (bleep) that is watered down by the time it gets to the street.”

Detective Bill Martin knows The Short Stop well. He jokes that his bar stool there was equipped with a seat belt until he sobered up 10 years ago. Now director of the LAPD’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation office, he says attendance at such dives is on the wane.

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Under the Gates administration, there is far less tolerance for the legendary drunks of yesteryear.

Cops themselves are generally better-educated and more health-conscious. Of the 113 LAPD employees or their dependents who entered a rehabilitation program last year, only 19 were sent as a result of disciplinary action; the rest went voluntarily.

“The good ol’ boy behavior has changed,” Martin says. “I don’t quite see these places fading the way of the dinosaur . . . but somebody’s losing some business.”

Over the years, cop bars probably have done much to foster the paramilitary camaraderie that the LAPD prides itself on. Many old-timers, in fact, complain that the new generation of officers is unwilling to join in the macho culture they feel is essential to breeding toughness on the streets.

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The truth is that most cops--despite all the talk about a softer hand and community policing--seem to still believe there’s a time and place to lay down a hard line.

And there’s no better place than The Short Stop to hone that edge.


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