Detective Sal LaBarbera is featured in Link Voices documentary "South Bureau Homicide," which explores the roles of LAPD homicide detectives and a local community's anti-violent crime activists, who together investigate and cope with the violence that plagues parts of South Los Angeles.
Detective Sal LaBarbera is nearly two years into his retirement after 28 years at the Los Angeles Police Department South Bureau's homicide division and he has yet to take a vacation. Since his retirement, LaBarbera has kept himself busy working part-time as a consultant and producer for crime T.V. and film. With the knowledge of nearly 5,000 homicides that have come through his office, Hollywood couldn't have found themselves a better guy.
“It was a real big change in the beginning. 24/7 for 28 years, I never slept. I’m learning how to sleep now. But when the phone rings, I still get the heebie-jeebies and I think its work,” said LaBarbera.
Slowly, he is adjusting to a normal life, one outside of the LAPD’s homicide unit. Just that morning, he booked a flight to his hometown in New York’s Westchester County and a few days ago, LaBarbera donated all the clothes he’s ever worn to a crime scene. He bought a whole new wardrobe, one that will fit his slimmed down physique, at 30 pounds lighter.
LaBarbera is now living life at a slower pace. One that allows him the time to exercise and eat healthier meals, LaBarbera said. But before he hung up his badge in February of 2015, he worked tirelessly.
“Literally, those last two years, I worked nonstop. I wanted to just finish everything,” said LaBarbera.
LaBarbera left the LAPD at a time when homicides are at an all time low, a stark contrast to the number of homicides when he became a detective at the height of the crack epidemic and gang violence in the late '80s. At that time, the South Bureau — a 57-square-mile area that spans from USC to Harbor Gateway — accounted for 42% of the homicides that took place within the City of Los Angeles.
Being a patrol officer was never enough for LaBarbera and he knew from his experience working with detectives while on patrol that he wanted to work homicide.
“It was the ultimate crime and you have the chance to speak for the voiceless. Seeing homicide detectives respond to our crime scenes at all hours of the night and seeing them at the station for days on end to solve a case. I wanted to see cases to the end,” said LaBarbera.
In 1986, the South Bureau lacked the detectives needed to investigate the 1,000 to 1,500 homicides per year and LaBarbera was brought on temporarily to aid in the investigations. Three years later, he was promoted to sergeant and detective.
“We were constantly running and putting fires out, so we couldn't investigate the cases the way they should have been. We lacked resources, money and personnel,” said LaBarbera.
A string of gang prevention programs were implemented in the midst of the gang wars that lasted from the late '80s to mid-to-late '90s, including LAPD’s Jeopardy Program and Community Law Enforcement Area Recovery Program. The Los Angeles city attorney’s office formed a Gang Unit in 1986 that began using civil injunctions, enforced by civil and criminal sanctions, to target gang members and suspected gang members. More commonly known as gang injunctions, the injunctions have lead to backlash from those who say that they promote racial profiling and the criminalization of young people of color by the police.
As the gang violence subsided, the South Bureau was left grappling with ways to catch up on unsolved homicide cases and in the early 2000s formed a cold case squad.
“We were able to catch up after that. If we had five cases, we just took the one with the best leads. A lot of the cases that are not solved, many times we know who the suspects are, we just need to get the witnesses to cooperate and building relationships within the community helps because one contact could make the difference,” said LaBarbera.
In 2007, the Mayor’s Office established the Gang Reduction and Youth Development that has former gang members provide gang intervention services in areas where gang-related crime is at least 400 percent higher than other areas in Los Angeles.
Critics have accused the LAPD of arresting their way through the gang violence of the '90s and using excessive force which created a general distrust of officers in many communities of color. Since then, the South Bureau and the LAPD has also worked towards making community-based policing a reality. Efforts have kicked up in recent years since the LAPD came under fire by advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement for the shootings of unarmed black men.
“It wasn’t until the mid-to-late '90s, we realized that instead of jamming things down the communities throat, it’s a good time to listen to the community to see what their needs and concerns were and address those issues,” said LaBarbera.
To improve relations, the South Bureau held community forums, attended church gatherings and funerals and visited with the families of victims.
“Getting out of your car and getting to know people in your neighborhood, that’s what makes a successful homicide detective. We build relationships with community leaders, pastors and neighborhood watch leaders and tell them, ‘this is how we’ve been doing things, its not working’ and asking what we can do to improve,” said LaBarbera.
LaBarbera said it was not the gruesome murder scenes that affected him, but rather the time spent answering to them. He is now catching up on lost time with his wife and two daughters who are now attending college.
“My daughters are happy to have me around but now they're older and have their own lives. They call when they need money, but I love it. I love being there for them,” said LaBarbera.
As a supervisor, LaBarbera made sure to talk to new detectives about keeping the balance between work, family and play. And he reminds them to always take their vacations. “It’s easy to get immersed in these cases so much to where it does affect you. I watched guys have heart attacks and get sick and really lose it from working crazy hours,” said LaBarbera about work days that would start at 6 a.m. and end around 8 or 9 p.m. However, it wasn’t unusual to get called back into work a few hours later to take on a fresh case.
LaBarbera has had the same phone number for over 20 years and has kept in touch with many of the victim’s family members and community activists. He often gets invited to barbecues and Stop the Violence marches in South L.A. and sometimes drops in on community meetings.
“All cases are rewarding, every single one. You treat every case like if it was your own child,” said LaBarbera.
For a detective who has been with the LAPD for more than 33 years, LaBarbera has set the bar high for incoming homicide detectives. He said he gets calls every so often from detectives seeking advice on cases.
LaBarbera has managed to stay humble despite the heavy media attention he received when the news of his retirement broke and indispensability as a trove of knowledge for Hollywood. When asked if there are any movies or shows based off of his experience as a homicide detective, he responded with an unassuming laugh, “I’m just a retired homicide cop, that’s all. But there are actually a few in the works.”