I Saved Los Angeles Millions of Dollars
by Marc Curtis
©2017 MarcCurtis.com all rights reserved
Dateline: February 8, 1986 11:30a.m.
Location: 6849 N. Vanscoy Ave, Van Nuys
My story isn’t about the tragic death of two revered Los Angeles Police bomb squad members, but that’s where it begins. As a freelance television news journalist, I usually had the police and fire scanners on to monitor activity in the city. On this sunny Saturday morning, I heard the call: “Explosion at 6849 Vanscoy Ave. Police on the scene.” My curiosity was raised quickly since police were unlikely to be on the scene if it was a natural gas explosion. Was it a drug lab?
The location was less than a mile from my home, so I grabbed my video camera and drove speedily (within the legal limits) to the address. I arrived before the fire department, and at the same time as “Mike,” a freelance still photographer (actual name withheld). We parked our cars at the nearest intersection to make certain we could leave after capturing the action without getting blocked in by emergency vehicles.
The scene was oddly motionless. Several uniformed officers were positioned outside the garage of the home. Worry seemed to emanate from their stance. Something had happened inside the garage, but we were unable to obtain a clear view. An ambulance arrived. Then another. Two bodies were swiftly wheeled on gurneys from the garage to the waiting vehicles, while paramedics performed their expertise intensely. Then they sped off to the nearest hospital.
Suddenly, a burly uniformed sergeant in his early 50s noticed us and approached red-faced toward us screaming, “get out of here! Get those cameras out of here!” We kept filming. He continued his angry rant, but my colleague decided to argue about freedom of the press and proclaimed the civil code that supported his resistance to moving away from the action. The angry officer told us this was a crime scene and we’d be arrested if we didn’t move as we were told. The photographer continued to antagonize the officer, while I said, “come on, do what he says. We can argue with him later, when he calms down.” Several officers began stringing yellow crime scene tape as they walked us back to the intersection where we had parked, preventing us from seeing anything more. We waited behind the tape, and “Mike” continued complaining. “They can’t do that to us!” I assured him that they could.
The investigation continued as numerous police cars and fire trucks appeared. Roughly 20 minutes later, the angry cop returned to our position. He apologized profusely as he explained that two of his friends, bomb squad detectives, had just been blown apart while defusing a pipe bomb. He asked me not to let the footage of him losing control appear on the evening news. I explained that it was up to the assignment editors, but I would certainly include a note regarding his act of contrition. The footage of him exploding into my lens aired on every television newscast that night, and the anchors did comment about the apology.
The next day at Parker Center, the police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, I paid a visit to Lt. Dan Cooke who was the head of the media section of LAPD. I gave him a copy of the video and made it very clear that the officer explained his anger, apologized, and shook hands before returning to his duty. Cooke was appreciative that I had cooperated with orders on the scene, and that I had no ill feelings toward the officer. That video was utilized for many years to follow in police training classes on how not to deal with the media.
The story continues a few months later when thousands of employees at the General Motors factory in Van Nuys were causing a disturbance while on a break. They poured out of the plant onto Van Nuys Boulevard and began drinking beer, which was illegal to do on public streets and sidewalks. Once again, I heard chatter on the scanner, this time from an LAPD helicopter. I called my friend, photographer Thom Elder, and asked if he heard what was going on. Since Thom lived two blocks from me, I picked him up and we headed to the GM plant. We arrived to see a large crowd already gathered in front of a liquor store, while hundreds more continued to pour out of the fenced parking lot of GM. Police were apprehending those who were consuming alcohol. I started shooting video of the activity, then noticed a scuffle between police and resistant violators.
One burly uniformed sergeant in his early 50s seemed to be in charge of apprehending a rowdy group of men who appeared to be at least slightly inebriated. Nightsticks and handcuffs were employed to bring the situation under control. Yes, it was the same cop I encountered at the bomb squad event. I filmed the action for about an hour, then returned home to duplicate the footage and deliver it quickly to the seven TV stations in time for the news at 11 p.m.
I received a phone call half a decade later from the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. They had tracked me down because of the footage I shot of the officers arresting people at the Van Nuys GM disturbance. I was told that a civil rights lawsuit was finally scheduled for a hearing, and asked if I would be available to testify about my impression of what happened that night. I agreed to their request and was questioned in depth about my observations. Six former GM employees were suing the city for 25-million dollars.
“The defense calls Marc Curtis to the stand.” “Raise your right hand. Do you promise to tell the truth…?” blah blah blah…everyone knows the rest of the oath. The city attorney asked if I shot the footage that was about to be shown to the court. I confirmed. Questions were asked about the details of my purpose, what I saw, and whether I witnessed police brutality at the scene. Then the plaintiff attorney asked if the tape had been edited. I assured him it had not, and that any ‘cuts’ were from starting and stopping in camera, but the video was complete as shown. He challenged me as an “expert witness” regarding editing. I assured him I had been editing audio since 1968, and video a few years later. Many more questions were tossed my way, and I calmly reported the truth as I knew it.
I finished my testimony and met with the City Attorney in the hallway outside the courtroom. He was smiling and told me that my answers were excellent. The jury had been attentively glued to every word. The decision was handed down after a few days. They determined that a measure of excessive force was used and awarded the accusers — $15,000. My testimony had saved the City of Los Angeles $24,985,000.
I never saw the burly uniformed sergeant in his early 50s again. But I have no doubt that he knew I could have had my revenge for his prior actions.