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Forensic dummy shows the bullet trajectories of the Onion Field murder.
Forensic dummy shows the bullet trajectories of the Onion Field murder.

LAPD Museum

Field review by the editors.

Los Angeles, California

The LAPD Museum, like its namesake police department, travels a congested freeway of celebrity, popular culture, and law enforcement -- where nearly every newsworthy crime in the neighborhood eventually becomes a Hollywood movie.

You've probably seen this 1925 museum building on tv.
You've probably seen this 1925 museum building on tv.

"It is tricky in a lot of ways," said Erica Arias, the executive director, explaining the museum's precarious balance between fact and semi-fiction. "We have a lot of moving parts."

Even the museum building, the former Highland Park police station, built in 1925, has appeared in countless films and TV episodes, usually with old-fashioned cars parked out front.

Despite its name, the museum is not run by the LAPD or the city, but by the independent Los Angeles Police Historical Society. This provides some perspective, so in addition to the typical police uniforms, badges, guns, handcuffs, and nightsticks, this museum has relics such as Charles Manson's copy of the Beatles' White Album, which introduced Manson to "Helter Skelter." "Quentin Tarantino," said Erica, "modeled his props in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on our Manson artifacts."

LAPD motorcycle and bomb disposal suit.
LAPD motorcycle and bomb disposal suit.

There's a forensic dummy from 1963 that shows the bullet trajectories that killed patrolman Ian Campbell (Later made into the film, The Onion Field), and Jack Webb's iconic Sgt Friday badge 714 from Dragnet. The exhibit for Adam-12, another network tv series fondly recalled by the LAPD, features 1970s merchandise for kids such as comic books, metal lunch boxes, and a three-reel "talking View-Master" set.

According to Erica, a surprising number of L.A.'s most famous fatalities are still considered "open cases" (meaning that they're closed to the public), limiting what the museum can exhibit. There's no restriction, however, on its decorative use of old press-released police photos and screaming L.A. Times newspaper headlines ("Marilyn Monroe Found Dead"). Wall murals titled "Celebrity Scandals" and "Notorious Cases" hint at the rich veins of Los Angeles criminal history that may someday be mined.

Misspelled toe tag of Bugsy Siegel, one of L.A.'s many famous fatalities.
Misspelled toe tag of Bugsy Siegel, one of L.A.'s many famous fatalities.

"Helter Skelter!" Charles Mason's copy of The White Album.

Outside -- along with an LAPD helicopter and bomb disposal truck -- is a seven-ton armored battering ram, originally built for use in the Vietnam War and affectionately known as "the tank" until it was retired as being too militaristic for police work. The LAPD pioneered the use of SWAT teams, and the museum gift shop sells miniature tactical vests as beverage koozies.

The museum's take-your-own-mug-shot photo-op is popular: a 1960s chair formerly sat on by thousands of criminals, now sat on by thousands of museum visitors, who have their headshots snapped along with a booking ID number. "It's unusual," Erica said, "for a museum to have people sit on its artifacts."

One memorable crime with its own museum exhibit is the May 1974 shootout between the Symbionese Liberation Army and the LAPD. Over 9,000 rounds were fired by both sides, most of them missing their targets (Although six SLA members did die). The M1 carbine of Patty "Tania" Hearst (who later starred in Serial Mom) is on display, as are two unexploded pipe bombs left by the SLA under LAPD vehicles.

Patty Hearst and the SLA gun battle of 1974.
Patty Hearst and the SLA gun battle of 1974.

Because this is L.A., the SLA gunfight was broadcast live on tv, as was the even higher-powered 1997 North Hollywood Shootout between two combat-equipped bank robbers and the outgunned local cops, "one of the most prolonged and shocking gun battles in the history of this country," according to its exhibit display. News footage of the street warfare plays on a video loop next to dummies dressed in the robbers' actual clothes and body armor, with weapons and shell casings scattered at their feet. A sheet of bulletproof glass from the bank shows where two bullets failed to penetrate, but subsequent poking by countless curious fingers has done more damage than the bullets, so now it's under its own pane of protective glass (We've seen this elsewhere ).

The North Hollywood Shootout has its own gift shop t-shirt.
The North Hollywood Shootout has its own gift shop t-shirt.

Parked out back, in the museum's vintage vehicle display, is one of eight bullet-riddled squad cars (75 holes) from the Shootout, next to the deceased robbers' Chevy Celebrity, which has blown-out windows and so much body damage that it looks like a junkyard target on a firing range.

The museum has wisely kept the old police station's grim, cage-like holding cells. Erica said that many of the cage's former occupants have visited the museum, and that one prisoner, nicknamed Manny the Molester, never left: he hung himself in his cell, and his ghost still haunts the building. According to Erica -- a no-nonsense daughter of a deputy sheriff -- the building is infested with ghosts. "We have all of these artifacts that were used in murders," she explained. "Door handles jiggle, there are phantom footsteps, pens fly off the desks." The museum has paranormal tours four times a year, but Erica said that she's never participated. "I don't need a ghost hunt," she said. "I experience it all day at work."

Sounds like the makings of another "based on a true story" LAPD-inspired Hollywood screenplay.

LAPD Museum

6045 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
In the old Highland Park police station. Route 66/Arroyo Seco Pkwy exit 30 or 30A. Turn west onto York Blvd/S. Ave. 64 and follow York Blvd less than one mile. The museum will be on the right, three blocks west of N. Figueroa St.
Tu-Sa 10-3:30 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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