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A Farewell to Firestone : Sheriff’s Station, the First in the County to Put Black Deputies in Patrol Cars, Is Set to Close After 38 Years

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a bright October day in 1955, 5-year-old Joe Martinez stood among 10,000 spectators gathered for the largest parade ever in the Florence-Firestone area. The spectacle marked the opening of the county’s first sheriff’s station, a state-of-the-art facility that was a prototype for stations that would follow.

Martinez didn’t know it then, but the Firestone Station would become an integral part of his life. Nineteen years later, he joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and was assigned to the very station whose opening he celebrated as a child.

Today, 38 years after the floats, bands and tanks rolled down Florence Avenue, the Firestone Station is set to close, to be replaced by yet another state-of-the-art facility in Lynwood. With paint peeling from its walls and its once-shiny floors faded and scuffed, the Firestone Station has been rendered obsolete by 22 more advanced facilities constructed since 1955.

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Throughout its history, the concrete building at 7901 S. Compton Ave. has been steeped in tradition and sometimes clouded by controversy. Hundreds of deputies have passed through its doors, and thousands of suspects have been booked there.

It was the first sheriff’s station in the county where African American deputies were allowed to ride in patrol cars; it was also the first in the county to be commanded by an African American captain. It was the scene of protests against police brutality in 1980. Its deputies have endured two deadly riots and done everything from deliver babies to mourn colleagues who were killed in the line of duty.

“There you had the spread of human condition that goes from birth to death,” said Sheriff’s Chief Duane T. Preimsberger, 53, whose first patrol assignment was at the Firestone Station in 1963. “It was like the last frontier. It was just a fascinating place to work.”

When the station was built, it joined the county’s health department and building and safety offices across the street on Compton Avenue to form the Firestone-Florence Civic Center.

A dedication ceremony followed the Oct. 15, 1955, parade, which snaked down Florence to Hooper Avenue and crossed Nadeau Street before ending at the station. While bands played and about 400 people enjoyed free hot dogs and sodas, a host of politicians spoke from a podium that was draped in red, white and blue.

“It was a combination of July Fourth and Armistice Day,” recalled former County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who was in the early stages of a 40-year stint representing the 2nd Supervisorial District and was instrumental in getting the station built. “It was the biggest parade ever on Florence Avenue. . . . The public was so happy to have a new sheriff’s station. Everyone turned out.”

Among the officials joining Hahn were then-Sheriff Eugene W. Biscailuz, Rep. Clyde Doyle and the mayors of eight surrounding cities.

Designed by James H. Garrott Jr., a prominent African American architect whose family had longtime roots in South-Central, the Firestone Station was considered the most modern law enforcement facility of its time. The $450,000 structure featured a “show-up room,” where victims and witnesses--with the aid of adjustable lighting--could view suspects under day, dusk and night conditions. A one-way glass prevented the suspects from seeing others.

The station had a booking room where suspects were photographed and fingerprinted, and there were separate jail cells for misdemeanor and violent offenders. Before that, arrestees were booked at the main county jail Downtown at the Hall of Justice. The station also had a “blast proof” underground command center that could be powered by auxiliary generators to be used in the event of any disaster.

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“When we got there, it was like moving into a mansion,” said retired Capt. Ralph Wyatt, 79, the first commanding officer. Previously, he and about a dozen deputies were housed in a cramped office near Alameda Street and Firestone Boulevard.

Like the rest of society at that time, the Sheriff’s Department was grappling with integration. For the most part, black deputies were only allowed to work at the jail at the Hall of Justice.

Because of the new station’s location, several retired black deputies recalled, they were allowed to work there. It was near Central Avenue, the hub of the black community in Los Angeles at the time, and covered heavily African American neighborhoods in Watts and Willowbrook.

“If blacks rode patrol cars, they worked at Firestone,” said Clydell Hill, 69, a retired deputy who came to the station in 1956.

Hill and other African Americans assigned to Firestone in the late ‘50s recall some resistance from white deputies who did not want to work with them or who thought that they were not capable. But for the most part, they said, black deputies were accepted on an equal basis.

“There were some tensions, but I don’t seem to remember any serious problems,” Hill said.

Almus Stewart, 70, who came to the Firestone Station in 1959, remembered being defended by a white sergeant when a woman refused to let him enter her front door after she called officers to report a theft.

“She said she didn’t want that ‘colored boy’ coming through her front door,” recalled Stewart, who retired from the department in 1975.

Stewart remembered the stern-faced sergeant looking the woman straight in the eye and saying: “Ma’am, we don’t hire colored boys. We just hire deputies.”

Having received their start at Firestone, many black deputies went on to serve with distinction.

Isom J. Dargan, who worked at the station in the 1950s and ‘60s, became the department’s first black lieutenant, captain and inspector. Dargan, who commanded the Firestone Station in the late 1960s, retired in 1974. He died in 1986 of a respiratory ailment.

“He was a pioneer, and it made me feel pretty good when he got promoted to captain,” said Hill, who was at the station at the time. “I’m glad I got to see that happen.”

There were also a few women at the station in its early days. Retired Deputy Marie Hawkins said the women mainly worked desk assignments but would occasionally go out in the field.

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Unlike the men, who wore pants and boots, women deputies in the 1950s and ‘60s were required to wear dresses and two-inch heels, which Hawkins said made it hard to chase suspects.

“You just took them off, tossed them aside and hoped that you could find them later,” said Hawkins, who worked at the station in 1960 and 1961.

Starting in the 1970s, female deputies were finally allowed to ride patrol cars and wear the same uniforms as men. Today, the Firestone Station is commanded by a woman, Capt. Carole A. Freeman.

In its early days, the Firestone Station service area covered 45 square miles stretching from South-Central to Pacific Coast Highway. Today, the station’s district is bounded roughly by Alameda Street on the east, Central Avenue on the west, Slauson Avenue on the north and 103rd Street on the south.

Then, as now, it was a coveted assignment--an action-packed district where deputies could test their mettle.

“It was jumping all the time,” said retired Lt. Sid Jolivette, 82, who commanded the station’s detective detail in 1955 and 1956. “Everything happened there.”

Including the 1965 Watts riots.

After burning a nearby fire station to the ground on the first night of the rioting--which was sparked after a confrontation between residents and Highway Patrol officers near Avalon Boulevard and 116th Place--an angry crowd thronged at the Firestone Station, tossing rocks and bottles at the building and taunting deputies. The crowd was eventually dispersed with the help of sheriff’s reinforcements, who were bused in from the Hall of Justice.

“There was just these tremendous fires burning everywhere--people looting stores, just this tremendous chaos,” Preimsberger said of the riot.

Added Hill: “It was an experience that a person really doesn’t want to go through or see. I’ll never forget it.”

One of the station’s deputies, Ronald Ludlow, was shot dead while on patrol during the rioting. Over the years, seven Firestone Station deputies have died in the line of duty.

Firestone Lt. Willie Henderson, 50, who was dispatched to the Watts riots with the National Guard, said law enforcement agencies were generally better prepared for last year’s riots.

“The first one scared me,” Henderson said. “In the second one, I felt more comfortable. We had a lot better tactics and there was better control.”

Unlike the Watts riots, last year’s disturbances did not happen near the station, although businesses in the southeast corner of its district suffered major damage.

Today, the station reflects the many changes that have occurred in the community during the past 38 years.

Once-white neighborhoods in the Walnut Park and Florence areas are now predominantly Latino. As a result, Spanish-speaking deputies work the front desk, and the department publishes a monthly bilingual Neighborhood Watch newsletter.

And hanging from a wall in a detective office is a testament to the rise in street violence. The “Death List” contains the photos of more than 100 reputed gang members, most of them cut down in drive-by shootings.

“The majority of the residents here are decent, hard-working people, but the level of violence has increased dramatically,” said Detective Chuck Norris, standing near a confiscated banner with a gang name written in graffiti script.

Although deputies maintain that they have public support, the station has not been without controversy.

In 1980, residents in the Florence area accused deputies of brutality and formed the Southeast Community for Justice. As a result of those complaints, the Sheriff’s Department paid a court settlement to two residents who charged that they were beaten by two deputies.

“That station has had problems. There’s no question about that,” said attorney and civil rights activist Antonio Rodriguez, who represented the two residents.

Others have a different opinion.

“If it weren’t for the Firestone Sheriff’s station, I could never have remained in business,” said Phil Goldhammer, 69, who owned and operated the GI Liquor store at 93rd and Alameda streets for 46 years. Goldhammer, who retired in August, said he was robbed only once during his years in South Los Angeles.

“There’s always people who are not going to like the police,” the Ladera Heights resident said. “But in my time here, I never saw the deputies abuse anyone.”

Added Floyd Dominguez, a longtime Walnut Park resident and member of the station’s Community Advisory Committee: “They perform a very, very good service to the community.”

The station’s current 134 deputies insist that most residents are on their side.

“We get along with the community,” Sgt. David Furmanski said. “I think if I were involved in a fight and was losing, there would be people who would come out and help me.”

There are also local residents who joined the department because they viewed Firestone deputies as role models.

Take Joe Martinez, who attended the parade when the station opened. He was raised on 88th Street and graduated from Huntington Park High School.

“When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a deputy at this station,” said Martinez, 43, a detective who has been at Firestone Station for 14 years. “For me, law enforcement has been a way to help people.”

The station has also been an important part of Lt. Henderson’s life. Henderson, a 28-year Sheriff’s Department veteran, grew up in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts. When he was 17, his father was killed in a robbery. Deputies from the Firestone Station responded to the call, and Henderson said he remembers them asking him if he wanted to be a cop.

“I can remember telling them, ‘Hell no,’ ” said Henderson, who changed his mind after a stint with the military police while in the Army.

When the station closes in the spring, it will become a teen center operated by the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation, which sponsors educational and recreational activities. The department is seeking private-sector funding for the endeavor, Freeman said.

Firestone’s personnel will be merged with Lynwood Station deputies at a new, larger facility at Alameda Street and Imperial Highway. The consolidation, expected in March, is designed to save money for the cash-strapped county government.

Even now, the Firestone Station is a ghost of what it was. Prisoners are housed at the Lynwood facility. Boxes filled with everything from books to old pictures are piled throughout the building.

But in a weight room in the station’s basement, words written on a chalkboard capture the sentiment of those who have served there: “Firestone will never die.”

“For a lot of these deputies, this station closing feels almost like losing a member of their family,” Henderson said.

“It’s sad,” added Wyatt, the station’s first captain. “You hate to see all that history end. But you realize that things do wear out.”

On the Cover

Los Angeles County Explorers Lupe Garcia and Mary Ann Jimenez lower the flag in front of the Sheriff’s Department’s Firestone Station at 79th Street and Compton Avenue. The flag will be lowered at the station for the last time in the spring, when the station will shut down after 38 years of service to Watts, Willowbrook and other South Los Angeles neighborhoods.

“There’s probably more tradition at this station than (at) any other in the county,” said Detective Joe Martinez, 43, who grew up in the Florence area and attended the station’s opening ceremonies in 1955. “I feel bad that it’s closing. It’s been my home for 14 years.”


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