Old L.A. police bulletins show city’s history from a different angle
In a 1920s brick fortress near the gritty corner of York Boulevard and Figueroa Street in Highland Park, the intertwined history of Los Angeles and its police force is slowly being recovered from fragile documents that were never meant to be saved.
A few steps from the bullet-riddled patrol cars from the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout and relics of the Symbionese Liberation Army on display at the former station, Los Angeles Police Museum volunteer Joan Renner, under guidance from the Getty Museum, is painstakingly archiving half a century of bulletins that provide snapshots of the LAPD starting in 1907.
In the last 2 1/2 years, Renner, 63, has read thousands of bulletins while archiving them. With the joy of a new mother, she describes her archival project as a perfect combination of her seemingly unrelated interests in vintage paper, women’s history and crime.
“It’s like Homer Simpson and his doughnuts. Is there nothing that they can’t do?” Renner says. “And the answer is no, there is nothing they can’t do. The daily bulletins are super history documents.”
It’s unclear when the LAPD began issuing daily bulletins. The earliest surviving copies capture Los Angeles as the 20th century exploded across America, alerting officers to stolen bicycles, wanted men and new traffic regulations. An example:
“It is unlawful for any person to hitch a horse, mule or other animal or leave standing any bicycle, motorcycle, automobile, buggy, carriage, wagon or other vehicle with or without animals attached thereto upon any street upon which streetcars or urban cars are operated within 40 feet of either side of any street crossing.”
Printed on cheap, pulpy paper — “like Black Mask,” Renner says — the bulletins were meant to be discarded within a day or two, but in a quirk of fate, copies were saved and bound by the city.
Although the bindings are sturdy, the paper is not. So Renner is tenderly removing the sheets, scanning them and putting them in plastic sleeves for preservation, with the ultimate goal of creating a searchable database.
Renner and her project may seem like an ideal fit, but her path was hardly clear-cut. During 30 years with the UC system as an assistant in academic affairs offices, Renner pursued a consuming passion for women’s history and cosmetics, collecting paper ephemera such as face powder boxes and hairnet packages.
In the last few years, Renner was “test-driving” options for her retirement days. She became a docent for the Los Angeles Conservancy and began contributing to the 1947project, an acclaimed blog on historical L.A. crime.
One day, while giving an L.A. Conservancy tour of Union Station to a bus load of crime buffs, she met retired LAPD Sgt. Glynn Martin, executive director of the police museum. He was looking for volunteers.
Renner remembers telling him about her passions for paper — and history.
“I’m really comfortable with old paper because of my cosmetics ephemera collection,” she says. “I love old paper. And so when I came in, they showed me the daily bulletins and I was just absolutely in love.”
She soon discovered that each era of the bulletins has a character. “They bleed into each other because time just does that. You can’t say, ‘Well, this is 1919, 1920 is going to look a lot different.’ The crimes are different, but the people are the same,” she says.
In the 1920s, the bulletins are all about flappers and Prohibition.
“You have this explosion of women who have just cut their hair into bobs, and they are looking for something different than their mothers were looking for,” Renner says. “The petting parties, the crimes committed by women. There was a rash of girl bandits; they called them bandit queens.”
The Great Depression brought suicides and bank robberies.
“I’ve seen a lot of Jane and John Does,” Renner says. “People seemed to be like lemmings, walking into the ocean in Venice and Santa Monica. It almost seemed like there were droves of them for a while.”
In the late 1940s, the era of the Black Dahlia case, Los Angeles had a large, transitory population and a great number of traumatized World War II veterans, she says. Renner helped curate the museum’s recent exhibit on the city’s most famous unsolved killing and has done a somewhat speculative profile on Elizabeth Short — nicknamed the Black Dahlia — based on her cosmetics.
However interesting the portrait of the LAPD may be, there are some matters on which the bulletins are silent. There’s no mention of a segregated Police Department, very little about the homeless except for killings on skid row, and few references to gays beyond saying that a suspect “frequents homosexual bars.”
And despite their historic nature, the bulletins remain relevant. Renner recently went into them to get a photograph of Stella Darlene Nolan, who vanished in 1953, for a detective delving into the case of confessed serial killer Mack Ray Edwards, who hanged himself in his death row cell in 1971.
“That brought home to me how these things really live,” Renner says. “The bulletins aren’t dry, moldy old paper. They still have impact.”
After reading years of bulletins, Renner has synthesized some broad ideas about Los Angeles, its police and its crimes.
“Crime in L.A. over those 50-odd years was inventive — very inventive,” Renner says. “People had imaginations, and they used them to do the most disturbing things.
“I can turn to any page and I know I’m in L.A. I can feel the breeze, I see the palm trees swaying. People came out here from everyplace and brought their baggage with them.
“L.A. crime,” she said, “is not like any other place.”
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