Cost of Film Is Big Negative to Police Polaroids

TIMES STAF WRITER

Hollywood has run out of film.

So has Rampart, West Valley and Southwest.

After a splashy preview last June, the Los Angeles Police Department's fleet of Polaroid cameras has become a victim of its own success. The state-of-the-art cameras, originally bought to assist in domestic abuse cases, are so popular the LAPD has run out of the costly color film.

Intended to photograph domestic violence injuries, the cameras have also become a popular tool to photograph gang members and their tattoos for police files, as well as stolen jewelry and illegal narcotics.

After initially saying the department couldn't afford to buy more film until the new fiscal year begins in July, department officials this week scraped together $40,000 to replenish the supply. But police officials concede that is only a temporary solution.

Police and prosecutors say the department needs a more permanent--and larger--funding source so the film won't fall victim to budget shortfalls. The department has had to scramble in recent months to supply enough film to meet growing demand.

Some police stations, including Devonshire and Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley, have stockpiled the film. But others have just a few shots left in their cameras.

"If you give me a gun and don't give me the bullets, what good is that?" said Sgt. John Vanelli, who works in the LAPD's Rampart police station. "If you give me a camera and no film . . . I can't use that tool anymore."

At the Hollywood police station, Sgt. Ralph Barrera said: "What kind of message are we sending? Domestic violence is important to fight but only when we have the money to fight it?"

Advocates for battered women agree. Patty Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, said: "I think it's absolutely ridiculous that they're driving around with cameras, proven successful, and no film."

The city attorney's office bought 400 of the cameras last year for officers to document injuries, providing powerful evidence for prosecutors. The LAPD pays for the film, which costs about 90 cents a shot.

LAPD Cmdr. Jim McMurray, head of the division that handles domestic violence training, said the department is studying the use of digital photography, an expensive technology that does not use conventional film.

But for now, LAPD spokesman Lt. Tony Alba said, the department will simply remind officers that the Polaroid cameras are to be used solely for domestic violence cases. "Fortunately or unfortunately, they're being used for all types of purposes," he said.

The cameras are capable of extreme close-ups. So prosecutors routinely make enlargements of the close-up photos to help persuade judges and juries.

"There's just no getting around a picture," said Suja Lowenthal, administrative coordinator for the city attorney's domestic violence unit. "We know for a fact with all the recanting victims . . . that it is the photos that assist us in prosecuting these cases. It's definitely the pictures that do it."

In fact, the city attorney's office is asking police to shoot more photos from crime scenes, contributing to the demand for film. Besides a bruised cheek or choke marks on a victim's neck, prosecutors also want pictures of the hole punched through the wall, the shattered lamp or the ransacked bedroom.

All of those shots can enhance the prosecutors' case, especially since authorities say eight of 10 battered women later recant the charges, fearing reprisal.

Giggans said she saw firsthand the influence of the instant photographs on victims. While riding with police in Van Nuys on Valentine's Day, Giggans counseled a woman who was reluctant to recount her beating to police. After a while, Giggans showed the woman her picture.

" 'This is what you looked like 15 minutes ago,' " Giggans said she told the woman. "She got a little gumption and she started talking to police."

But despite their successes, LAPD officials say using the cameras is expensive.

"Polaroid is not stupid," McMurray said. "I think they were creating a little demand for this film. . . . If I had to do it again, I might rethink this generous donation."

But even representatives at Polaroid, which sold the cameras and film to the city at a discount, say they can't do much about the LAPD's budget troubles.

Said Polaroid marketing representative Kim Hammond: "It always comes down to money."

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