CAPTURING A COP'S LIFE CARICATURES WORTH MORE THAN 1,000 WORDS ART: SKETCHES ARE LONG-STANDING TRADITION AT POLICE DEPARTMENT.
Matt Groller captures a police officer's entire career -- the personality, the undercover work, the fallen colleagues -- in a matter of hours.
Showing veterans clinking wine glasses, toting big guns and steering enormous motor homes -- and others in more serious reflections on a life fighting crime -- Groller's caricature tributes are as much a staple for retiring officers as the send-off party and the first pension check.
With a pencil, a pen and an air brush, the 31-year-old son of a former LAPD sergeant tries to bring out the essence of the men and women paid to protect and serve this city.
Filling the back pages of the police union's monthly publication, the sketches cover a broad range of human emotion -- from the die-hard cop to the family man.
"A lot of cops I know, the personality types are a hard surface, a little tougher," Groller said. "But I see the softer side."
An art school graduate who plays drums in an alternative rock band, Groller says this isn't his life's work. But for eight years, he has been carrying on a decades-old tradition started back in the 1970s by a graphic designer for the Los Angeles Police Department who drew officer sketches as a side business but gave it up by 2000.
Now, times are busy for Groller as hundreds of LAPD officers are retiring each year and even more are nearing the end of their careers over the next few years. Groller averages about two of his "upscale caricatures" a week.
Though other sketch artists offer their services to retiring officers, Groller is the most prolific.
Often quirky, sometimes touching, some of the personal sketches depict the most treasured career memories -- from the reliable patrol car to tense undercover assignments. Others point to the future -- showing officers reclining on the beach or carrying luggage.
Groller borrows from LAPD caricature tradition and his own experience as a cartoonist at Magic Mountain before finishing art school. He got his start eight years ago using the signature oversized head and "rap sheet" -- listing the divisions where an officer worked -- while creating a few sketches for friends of his father, a retired Devonshire Division sergeant.
"I am doing a service," Groller said. "It's kind of like extended family. I think that's great if I can make them happy."
One of his sketches is of an officer holding a gun in one hand and a golf bag slung over his arm. In another, there's a cloud symbolizing heaven over an officer's head, inscribed with "woof, woof" -- a dedication to his dead dog.
In yet another portrait, a retiree is boogie-boarding next to his wife, while one of the department's longest-serving cops hangs his head out of a 1957 patrol car, smoking a cigar.
From deputy chiefs on down, the cartoonish images are part portrait, part farewell tribute and often serve as the flier for the retirement bash.
Hollywood Division Sgt. Mike Diaz, who will retire May31 after 35 years, picked up his sketch and smiled broadly.
Diaz had asked Groller to draw a memorial stone to his "three babies," former officers he trained who had since died -- two in the line of duty and one of cancer.
"It's dynamite," Diaz said. "People look at it, people who have known you in years past. They will see that, 'I remember him when he worked there,' and they go down memory lane with you.
"It's like a goodbye postcard you give to yourself, and you could put anything in it you want."
Diaz is among the last wave of Vietnam veterans retiring from the department. He is also among an exodus of officers who stayed on past their years to take advantage of a program called "drop" that provides officers with a financial incentive to work longer.
Not surprisingly, officers are carrying bags of "drop" cash in many of the recent pictures.
It's not clear when the tradition started, but old-timers say they remember the caricatures popping up on corkboards in the station in the '70s. It became the must-have retirement token.
"It was an informal type of thing that really showed the guys not only for their history of who they were but where they are going to be," retired LAPD Sgt. and LAPD Historic Society Board member Fred Tredy said. "It was a nice send-off."
(1 -- 2 -- color) Matt Groller finishes a cartoon announcing the retirement dinner of LAPD Sgt. Mike Diaz, below.
(3) Retiring LAPD Sgt. Mike Diaz watches as artist Matt Groller finishes a cartoon announcing Diaz's retirement dinner.
Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
(4) Darrell Hinson cartoon
(5) James B. Thornton cartoon