At the table with: Hollywood cops

On Sunset Boulevard, a lunch break isn’t much of one at all

An LAPD squad car is discreetly backed up against the wall of a darkened parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and El Centro Avenue.

It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday, early in the late shift for the officers of the Hollywood Division, which patrols roughly from Melrose Avenue north to Mulholland Drive and Normandie Avenue west to LaBrea Avenue — a beat that includes one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in the world, the heart of Hollywood Boulevard, a hectic stretch where local tweakers mingle with out-of-town rubes to the tune of 25 million visitors each year.

In this division, the most frequent calls to the LAPD concern domestic violence, disturbing the peace and drunken antics. But it isn’t any of those things that find officers Thomas Zizzo and Maribel Colocho in the shadows at the rear of their cruiser, at a time when most people are winding their day down. It’s lunchtime.

The trunk of the car serves as a table as the two eat food from the El Flamin Taco truck parked nearby. It’s al pastor tacos with spicy red salsa for Zizzo; carne asada tacos with radishes and green salsa for Colocho. This truck, one of four El Flamin deploys across the city, is a mainstay for Hollywood cops, who take their food breaks when they can get them and who need to eat fast, with one eye on their surroundings. The food here is pretty good: For someone trying his or her first taco truck, it would be a revelation; for others, it’s simply a solid enough choice among many. But, more important, the lot where Zizzo and Colocho are eating is strategically sound.

Raúl Allén For The Times

“This intersection has some issues,” says Zizzo. A New Yorker by birth, the 26-year-old was only 8 on Sept. 11 and living in Battery Park City — next door to the Twin Towers. His family’s apartment was destroyed, and the seed of a future police officer was planted. He’s served with the LAPD for five years, all on the night shift.

Aggravated assaults are not uncommon in this corner of Hollywood, Zizzo says. Not surprising, with the volume of bars nearby and the Palladium across the street. So this isn’t just mealtime; it’s also a roost for subtle observation.

“We’re being tactful in the way we’re positioning ourselves,” Zizzo says. By eating on the trunk, “we have the car between us and anything that could happen. Those officers in Las Vegas in 2014” — he’s talking about the ambush and killing of two on-duty Vegas lawmen while they were eating lunch at a CiCi’s Pizza — “things like that are a reality for me and her,” he says, looking at Colocho, who nods.

“Tactically, this spot is ideal,” Colocho says. An officer, also mainly on the night shift, for almost five years, the 25-year-old grew up in Santa Ana. After witnessing what the gangs did to her hometown and developing a strong dislike of bullies, she resolved to become a police officer. One day she hopes to work in the anti-gang division.

“There’s nothing behind us, nothing that can surprise us,” she says, “and we can see in every other direction. So I can feel comfortable standing here and eating.”

Both officers are always ready for someone to approach them — even when their mouths are full. “I’ve experienced it multiple times,” Colocho says, “where me and my partner, we get to the location where we’re going to eat and somebody comes up and asks for directions, or they saw something happen and want us to go check it out.”

“It could be anything,” Zizzo says, “from somebody from the homeless community suffering from mental illness saying, ‘Hey, I’m being followed by aliens, unicorns’” — and these are things Zizzo actually has heard on the street — “‘I’m seeing dragons, goblins, monsters, Batman… from that, all the way up to anything truly awful that could happen to us sitting out here, eating, just from being in this car, in this uniform.”

Midway through their meal, a call comes over the radio summoning all nearby officers.

“We have to go,” Zizzo says. He and Colocho make a beeline for nearby trash cans, dump their unfinished tacos, and speed west on Sunset.

Raúl Allén For The Times

The call takes them to an apartment building on the far edge of their district. The man being sought is a local pimp, well known to the division, who was seen earlier at the nearby Hollywood Seven Star Motel hitting a woman with a 2x4 — maybe a prostitute who works for him, maybe a girlfriend, maybe both.

On arrival at the scene — a residential block that’s almost invisible in its quintessential Hollywood apartment building mediocrity — Zizzo and Colocho join a scrum of their division mates on the sidewalk out front. Though spotted there recently, the suspect isn’t around now. The officers disperse to continue their shifts. For Zizzo and Colocho, this means an hours-long drive over their parcel of the division’s 12-ish miles of turf, eyes and ears open, punctuated here and there by episodes of action.

On this night, there’s a pursuit heading east on Hollywood Boulevard, a convoy of flashing lights that’s running down a stolen white Nissan; a pause in a gas station parking lot to back up four fellow officers who are calming a ranting homeless man who eventually goes on his way without incident; and an open-container stop on an SUV, the driver and two passengers cuffed against an apartment building’s wall while records are searched and tickets are written. The taco Zizzo had earlier will be all he eats until watch ends at 3 a.m.; he doesn’t snack in the car. Colocho might graze a bit while on duty: peanuts, candy or sunflower seeds.

Raúl Allén For The Times

L.A. cops used to radio in “Code 7” to dispatch to indicate they were going on a meal break, which would give them 45 minutes — barring an urgent call — to eat. But union negotiations did away with that in exchange for more straightforward shift lengths, and officers now eat where and when they can.

Zizzo says he misses the food of his East Coast youth. He has never, he says, had a good slice of pizza in L.A., but he acknowledges the trade-off he gets in the mind-blowing Mexican and Salvadoran food here. Colocho, for her part, echoes the general refrain about eating in L.A. — its dizzying diversity makes it an exemplary food city. Chino Hills, where she lives, is prosaic in comparison.

For officers on duty, any meal could be their last. “But it’s something we have to get done in order to perform this job well,” Zizzo says as he turns from Yucca Street onto Cherokee Avenue. “We’re not going to let the threat of what could happen deter us from that.”

And it’s when breaking bread, as his first commanding officer taught him, that real closeness between partners starts to grow. “You’re not going to just sit there and eat your meal and not talk,” Colocho says. “Personal lives come up, things about the job, things about your past — and you form a bond.” Those conversations, held over a quick meal in a quiet corner at night in Hollywood, are the bedrock of partnership in the LAPD.

Raúl Allén For The Times

Credits: Animation by Swetha Kannan, production by Vanessa Martínez