Public Safety & Justice

The Future of Los Angeles' Police Stations

Is the LAPD misplacing something important in the process of building the next generation of police stations?
by | July 2010

If it weren't for the word 'police,' the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollenbeck Station could be mistaken for a modern museum. To see a slideshow of more LAPD stations, click here or scroll to the bottom of the page.

When Central Division station first opened in 1977, Los Angeles police officers dubbed it "Fort Davis" with heavy irony. Under former Chief of Police Ed Davis, officers were supposed to be building relationships with their neighborhoods. But instead, the department built a bunker--a massive, block-long structure in the heart of Skid Row. With no exterior windows and an inaccessible rooftop parking deck, Central Division was designed not so much to protect the surrounding community as it was to protect the police.

"It's an occupying block," says Thom Brennan, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Facilities Management Division's commanding officer. "You look at the architecture of that building and it means, 'stay away.'"

Three decades later and six blocks north, a very different model of police-community interaction is on display. At the corner of Main and West First streets, across the street from architect Thom Mayne's futuristic California Department of Transportation building, an angular office tower stands, sheathed by a 10-story glass wall that reflects Los Angeles' ziggurat-shaped City Hall in the distance. At one corner of the complex, workers are finishing renovations on what will soon be a restaurant. At another, a crew is shooting a film on the facility's immaculate lawn, tastefully landscaped with desert succulents. In a north side reflection garden, a detective in the LAPD's Cold Case Unit enjoys a moment of quiet. The structure behind him is the department's new home.

The recently completed $437-million police administration building isn't alone. For the past eight years, the LAPD has been on a building spree, thanks to a $600-million construction bond approved by voters in 2002 at the urging of former Mayor James Hahn. To date, nearly half of the department's 21 stations have been replaced or built from scratch. In doing so, the LAPD hasn't sought to simply upgrade facilities. It's set out to build stations that embody its hopes for a new relationship with local communities--one of transparency and cooperation. The result has been a profusion of architecturally avant-garde police stations unlike anything else in the country. But to some, the new buildings come with a cost--the disappearance of the police station as a distinct and recognizable part of urban neighborhoods.

Policing is a new profession. Not until the 1840s did cities like New York begin to establish departments based on London's model. These early departments had a much broader range of responsibilities than today's police officers, including picking up loose paper (it could spook horses), clearing weeds from abandoned lots and enforcing foot-and-mouth disease regulations. One of their most important obligations, though, was housing the homeless. In many cities, police stations routinely opened their cellars to tramps and thieves, the destitute and disabled, and children and criminals. Unhappy occupants of these police "lodging houses" were routinely robbed by toughs, forcibly vaccinated and then packed off to the recruiting office or an out-bound steamer.

There were other horrors too. In the early 1930s, the so-called Wickersham Commission revealed the practice of "the third degree," whereby police coerced confessions out of alleged lawbreakers through tactics that included round-the-clock interrogations, sleep deprivation and beatings. Los Angeles' main police station, an imposing Romanesque structure at the corner of First and Hill streets, actually contained "a rubber room" for that very purpose. Yet despite these abuses, these first- and second-generation police stations had an unmistakable civic presence--which had largely gone missing by the 1960s.

In the Westlake section of Los Angeles, the Rampart Division best illustrates police-community relations gone wrong. In the 1920s, Westlake had been one of L.A.'s most desirable neighborhoods. By the 1980s, it was home to the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha 13, crack cocaine and rampant police corruption. When the department got funds to build a new station for the district, it chose, not surprisingly, to bulldoze the old structure and start anew.

Today's Rampart Division station reflects a new conception of the police department's relation with the community. Inside, the station offers a 24-hour ATM. A first floor community room opens out onto a pleasant patio and barbecue area, both of which are routinely used by community groups. The station's grounds feel like a park. Stray soccer balls, not random bullets, are now Rampart Division's biggest concern.

Another new station, Harbor Division, sits 20 miles due south of Rampart, just across the road from the port of San Pedro, the largest container shipping port in the United States. The values of transparency and accessibility are reflected in the architecture of this new, LEED-certified station, which opened in May 2009. Visitors entering the station step into a soaring, light-filled atrium. At one end sits a desk sergeant, unprotected by the bank teller-style Plexiglas windows that make many big city police stations so inhospitable. Citizens visiting the station for the first time can't help but notice the change from the police station's traditional structure.

"All this space for the entry, it just makes you feel good," says Judith, a local artist who's come with her husband to file a complaint about a damaged car. "I've been sitting here, watching how the light moves. Look how delicately they used the colors," she says admiringly.

As striking as the architecture of the LAPD's new stations are, some department members miss the civic presence that the old stations had. Glynn Martin, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, oversees the department's history from the historic Highland Park Police Station, built in 1925. Walking through the front doors of the Highland's Renaissance revival building, visitors step up to an imposing oak desk where the desk sergeant once sat. The row of cells behind the desk leave no doubt as to the power and purpose that person once exercised.

"Early LAPD station houses were clearly recognizable as just that--a place where police assistance is rendered," Martin says. In contrast, the newer stations, though "absolutely striking and operationally superior," often look like buildings that "could just as easily be filled with attorneys or accountants instead of L.A.'s finest."

If the new Harbor Station looks like a stylish art gallery, Hollenbeck Station, which opened in September 2009, would be a cutting-edge museum. The station's striking coral colors, punctuated with openings that expose interior patios, and its front entrance, which is framed by a rippling, frosted-glass façade, seem more Frank Gehry than Adam-12. Only the stylishly sans-serif word "Police," emblazoned on several frosted-glass panels, communicates the building's purpose. On a recent quiet Friday afternoon, the station was filled with Hollenbeck residents, who stopped to chat easily (in Spanish) with Capt. David Hanczuk.

"The relationship between Hollenbeck the community and Hollenbeck the station is among the best in the city," Hanczuk says proudly as he shows off the new facility.

But looks can be deceiving. A recent gang flare-up keeps police officers clear of a second floor patio that looks out on a park across the street, lest they put themselves into the line of fire. It turns out that some of the station's most cutting-edge features are actually partially defensive in their posture. Take the undulating glass façade: The frosted-glass panels aren't just stylish, they also obscure sight lines and are backed by bullet-resistant glass.

"It wouldn't resist a [round fired from an] AK-47 or a M16, but it would slow and deflect it," Hanczuk says.

Maybe the new Hollenbeck station isn't so different from the old "Fort Davis" after all.

For more information about pictures in this Flickr slideshow, click on the individual picture.

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