Some people will call police about anything.
Like the lady who called a San Fernando Valley station to say her wood pile had fallen over. Or the one who phoned police to ask about road conditions in Arizona. And then there's the guy who dialed the front desk to alert authorities that his car had stalled--in his driveway.
"If there's something that occurs that nobody knows what to do with, they call the police," says Los Angeles Police Officer Bob Crum. "They call us for everything."
Officers recall a woman who dialed the desk insisting on filing a police report because her husband had left her. And there was another who complained that her neighbor's screen door was banging but assured officers they wouldn't have to rush over since it had been making the same noise for 11 years.
It's a side of policing that few people see and even fewer would have the patience to handle. But for the cops who sit at the front desk, such inquiries make up just another day on the job. Sometimes "to protect and serve" means having a sympathetic ear.
"The problem," says Crum of the West Valley station, "is that, after a while, everything weird becomes normal."
Some people call the cops because they can't think of who else to call. Other callers defy classification.
Consider the "Laser Lady,"--famous among officers citywide-- who for years dialed various stations reporting that she was being bombarded by lasers.
"We used to tell her we'd raise the solar shields for her and then put her on hold for a few seconds and pick up the line again and she would feel better," said an officer.
On one occasion, the Laser Lady stopped by a station complaining that her car was infested with aliens. To appease her, an officer jumped into her car and fired an unloaded Taser gun.
"The arcs and sparks were flying," he said. "She was so happy and relieved after that . . . she never called back."
They don't all call. Some come in person.
Officer Don Matthews of the department's West Valley station recalled his first encounter with "espionage" when he noticed a well-dressed man who had been standing in the station's lobby for several hours.
"I didn't like the way the guy just stood there staring at me," Matthews said. "So I asked him if he needed anything, but he said everything was all right and that he was just waiting for somebody."
When Matthews asked the man his name, he replied darkly, "The name is Bond . . . James Bond."
Matthews later told the man that a call had just come through the front desk from agent "M" who wanted "007" to meet him at the department's Harbor station in San Pedro. The man fled.
So it goes, day after day, the ringing phones occupying the officers time and challenging their patience.
"It gets so hectic up here, and we're so short-handed," says Officer Jerry Fritz as he worked the front desk recently.
Indeed, the phones ring relentlessly throughout the day, usually with just three officers sitting at the desk to answer as many lines. At night, the pace often slows, allowing officers more time to help the people who walk into the station to report crimes, usually real ones, like stolen cars or domestic disputes.
Still, it's the other calls, the ones that don't really require police help, that trigger laughter among the desk officers and ease the tension.
"People have called to complain about crickets making too much noise outside or somebody whistling too loud when they walked by," said Sgt. Stan Schott, of the Police Department's West Los Angeles station. "You become numb to it after a while."
A woman once called, officers insist, to report a spider in her sink. An Encino man once complained that the lights from his neighbor's tennis court were depriving him of sleep.
"They break up the boredom," says Fritz. "You laugh with them instead of at them, even though you know that some of them aren't all there."
Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at UC Berkeley, said perhaps the public turns to police, regardless of how trivial the problem, because officers are "respected, revered or feared figures in the community."
"At the same time, the image exists of the police helping little kids across the street, which nurtures the view that the people can turn to them for advice or guidance," says Dundes.
Dundes said he believes that the recent proliferation of television dramas that focus on police have, in effect, changed the public's expectations of cops.
"I think that the public expects more from the police because of the image that these shows project, which makes it look like they can solve any problem," Dundes says.
How cops respond to such calls is a matter of choice, since they receive no formal training on phone etiquette at the Police Academy. "They're told to deal with the public in a courteous manner," said Office Bill Frio, a police spokesman.
Many go beyond the call of duty.
Officer Frank Zdroy, currently a desk officer at the department's Valley Traffic station, which handles traffic accidents and traffic-related complaints, has compiled a list of the most frequently requested numbers so that he can refer callers to proper authorities.
"They think we're traffic court, the Highway Patrol or the DMV," Zdroy said.
Zdroy said he received a call last week from a woman who lives in the San Fernando Valley but got in an accident in Santa Fe, N.M., while driving an uninsured car.
"She was still in Santa Fe . . . but she called L.A.'s finest to find out what to do," says Zdroy. "It gets old after a while, but I think the citizens deserve help despite of their ignorance."
But in this case, there was little Zdroy could do. He told her to call the police--in Santa Fe.