The police mobilize against the Cuckoo’s Nest’s punk audience

From the very early days of punk’s presence at the Cuckoo’s Nest, punks and the police came into conflict in and around the Cuckoo’s Nest.  When the police determined that the Cuckoo’s Nest could not or would not pacify its punk audience, the police concocted a plan to regulate and ultimately eliminate the punk threat to the suburban peace, which was carried out by “The Costa Mesa Police Department Special Task Force” or the “Cuckoo’s Nest Special Enforcement.”  This special task force was created as a direct response to grievances lodged by local business owners and also complaints made by parents whose children were subjected to delinquency proceedings as a result of arrests around the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The police effort to finally eliminate the punk menace can be traced back to an ambitious sergeant on the police force—Sergeant Bell.  On December 26, 1980, Sgt. Bell sent a memorandum to his superior, Lieutenant Johnson.  In the December 26 memo, Sgt. Bell described the problems he had encountered in patrolling the area surrounding the Cuckoo’s Nest, many of which mirrored those identified by the local business owners:  “dope transactions and possession, minors in possession of alcohol, malicious mischief (graffiti spray paintings, broken bottles in driveways, parking lots and streets), traffic infraction, extensive littering (bottles and cans), curfew violations, drunk in public incidents and petty thefts . . . .”  The primary perpetrators, according to Sgt. Bell, were “juveniles, mostly ‘punk rockers’ from neighboring cities.”  Sgt. Bell concluded:  “Near riotous conditions have and will continue to exist when ‘heavy’ punk rock bands play as the punk rock fad runs toward violence.”  Sgt. Bell truly perceived punk as a threat to social order.

Sgt. Bell didn’t just complain about the unruly punks and the police’s impotency to stop the “near riotous conditions”: he outlined a strategy for neutralizing the threat punk presented.  The existing enforcement efforts had failed, Sgt. Bell concluded, because there were too many violations to handle with existing manpower, and because of the special bureaucratic problems presented by arresting juvenile offenders (processing a juvenile offender took about 2-4 hours).  Sgt. Bell’s proposal was “to establish a task force of officers to work 2 nights a week for 4 to 6 weeks straight, concentrating on the hours of highest activity, 2030 hours to 0100 hours.”  In case there was any doubt that the police targeted punk, Sgt. Bell recommended that “a week night when a ‘heavy’ rock band is booked should be worked.”  Sgt. Bell envisioned a group of 9-10 officers that would execute coordinated enforcement actions in the field and transform the bureaucratic tasks (e.g., police report writing) into “an assembly line process.”  Particularly interesting is Sgt. Bell’s suggestion to use plain-clothes officers as “spotters” who would “relay[] information to uniformed patrol arrest teams in the area.”  The “spotters” would most likely have to work from “the narc van,” Sgt. Bell reasoned:  “even plain clothes officers on the street would be noticed,” because “[p]olice officers do not look like punk rockers . . . .”  Essentially, Sgt. Bell proposed a surge of police in the area of the Cuckoo’s Nest, by which officers would pursue maximum enforcement of the law in order to deter punks from going to the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Sgt. Bell believed “a sufficient period of heavy enforcement” would restore the suburban peace.  Mirroring the opinions of the business community, it’s important to emphasize that Sgt. Bell’s proposal did not call for the targeting of the Cuckoo’s Nest, but rather the punks that frequented it.

Upon receiving Sgt. Bell’s memorandum, Lt. Johnson immediately made a formal proposal to his superior, Captain R.E. Moody.  In a December 27, 1980 memorandum, Lt. Johnson stated his general agreement with Sgt. Bell:  “I concur with Sgt. Bell’s analysis and subsequent request to initiate a special enforcement program in an effort to reduce misdemeanor crimes and possible felonies that are committed in this area.”  Lt. Johnson echoed Sgt. Bell’s identification of the problem as punk rock itself rather than the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Noting that “the Cuckoo’s Nest has become a congregating location for ‘punk rock’ types from throughout the county,” Lt. Johnson agreed that there was a need “to significantly impact the problem and make a reduction in the activity of the punk rockers.”  And importantly, Lt. Johnson concurred with Sgt. Bell that the means to address the problem of punk rock was a comprehensive, targeted enforcement at and around the Cuckoo’s Nest—a dragnet involving a special squad of officers that would only be called into action when punk rock bands played at the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Sgt. Bell would be tasked with figuring out “when punk rock bands are scheduled at the Cuckoo’s Nest so that we would not waste our man power on nights when there was possibly no problem.”  Anticipating large numbers of contacts with offenders, Lt. Johnson opined that his department could draw upon management practices learned in past drug busts.  Lt. Johnson confirmed that the theory behind the “special enforcement” program was deterrence—Lt. Johnson imagined that, after approximately six weeks of intense enforcement, the “special enforcement” program could transition to one of occasional random dragnets to keep any would-be offenders “off guard.”

Cpt. R.E. Moody approved Sgt. Bell’s proposal, as further elaborated by Lt. Johnson, on January 5, 1981.  And so was born “The Costa Mesa Police Department Special Task Force.”  As a direct result of this “special enforcement” program, the Cuckoo’s Nest would be shut down in under two months.

Sgt. Bell and his special squad vigorously implemented the “special enforcement” plan.  The “special enforcement” program was activated on five nights in January (and possibly early February) 1981.  On at least some of these nights, Assistant City Manager Allan Roeder and Councilman Tom Hall accompanied the Tast Force to witness firsthand the police operations.  At a mere five shows, Sgt. Bell’s dragnet resulted in a total of 95 arrests or citations; 25 of those arrested or cited were under the age of 18, and 51 were between the ages of 18 and 21.  The vast majority of offenses were alcohol or drug related.  To give a sense of the heavy handedness of the Costa Mesa police’s dragnet in early 1981, there were a total of 33 arrests from January 1979 to October 1980.  Thus, in about one month, the Costa Mesa police managed to arrest about three times as many Cuckoos’s Nest punk patrons as had been arrested in a near two year period in 1979-1980.

The most notable and serious crime encountered by the Task Force was directly caused by the Task Force’s heavy-handed enforcement tactics:  the late Patrick Edward Brown’s alleged attempted murder of two police officers in the Cuckoo’s Nest’s parking lot on the night of January 31, 1981.  Contemporary newspaper accounts have it that a plainclothes officer spotted Pat Brown, as well as two of his friends (S.D. Neely and R.E. Mondragon), drinking in the car in the Cuckoo’s Nest’s parking lot.  (2 Costa Mesa Police Injured by Car in Nightclub Lot; Driver, 21, Arrested,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1981.)  The plainclothes officer approached Brown and leaned into the car through an open window.  Brown, who evidently didn’t want to get caught for drinking-and-driving, punched the gas.  Somehow, the plainclothes officer was stuck to the car and was dragged as Brown started to flee.  A uniformed reserve police officer stepped in front of Brown’s feeling car, but Brown drove right through the cop.  Brown’s car struck the reserve office, but did not seriously injure him.  (“Punk rock showdown:  sides rally for Cuckoo’s Nest hearing,” Register, February 22, 1981.)  The downed reserve officer drew his weapon, and fired three shots at Brown’s vehicle.  Neither Brown nor his two passengers were struck by any of the bullets, but all three shots did strike Brown’s vehicle.  Brown was arrested in the vicinity of the Cuckoo’s Nest, and charged with felony attempted murder of a police officer.  The Vandals memorialized Brown’s parking lot escapade in “The Legend of Pat Brown” on the 1982 EP “Peace Thru Vandalism”:  “At the Cuckoo’s Nest, he did his best / To waste some pigs . . . . Patrick Edward Brown / Tried to run the mother fuckin’ cops into the ground.”

The dragnet netted a few other notable victims.  Roach and Cuckoo’s Nest manager Marty Martin were detained in a police van for approximately 30 minutes.  The crime?  “[W]alking down the middle of the street without identification.”25  Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski claims he was arrested at the Cuckoo’s Nest in his interview in Urban Struggle.  Arrest records also indicated that T.S.O.L. front man Jack Grisham was arrested on January 3, 1981.

From the Pat Brown incident, as well as Sgt. Bell’s original proposal, we know that cops were stationed in the Cuckoo’s Nest’s infamous parking lot.  Besides dodging Pat Brown’s vehicle, the undercovers also surreptitiously photographed punks in the Cuckoo’s Nest’s parking lot, punk graffiti, and detritus attributed to punks.  These photographs—far from the work of a professional—are for the most part unbelievably mundane.  In many cases, the cops literally photographed shit or vomit attributed to punks.  At the same time, however, some of these photographs provide fascinating depictions of the Cuckoo’s Nest’s punks and their artifacts.  In one such image (taken on the night of the Pat Brown incident), we see a group of four young punks, most of whom were dressed in trench coats and perhaps lab coats; one of the punks had a homemade red and black swastika affixed to his white coat.  In another image, we see some young punks walking through the parking lot against a background of painted over graffiti.  Another significant image appears to be a polaroid mugshot of sorts (the face of the offender is absent).  The subject’s arms are outstretched, revealing various lacerations on his forearms; carved on his hand are the words “Sieg Hiel,” which was mispelled.  A more comical image is the one of the binder assembled by the police consisting of an array of spiked leather bracelets confiscated from punks.

The images of the graffiti reveal that the punk vandals were amateur artists at best. One of the best graffiti images is of an Angelic Upstarts lyric from the song “Never Had Nothin’”:  “He’s 18 and he wants to die.”  Another memorable tag was “TSOL U can’t halt the cult.”

Ultimately, the “special enforcement” program abandoned its purpose of deterrence, an objective which assumed that the Cuckoo’s Nest would continue to exist and possibly even host punk shows.  By February 10, 1981, Detective Alan Kent—who worked undercover as part of the Cuckoo’s Nest dragnet and was a coordinator of the Special Task Force—recommended to Cpt. Moody “the closure of ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’” due to the “escalating problem . . . involving the criminal activity of juveniles . . . .”  Besides the surge in juvenile criminal activity, another basis for Det. Kent’s recommendation to shut down the Cuckoo’s Nest was the reputational interests of the City of Costa Mesa.  Det. Kent noted that the Cuckoo’s Nest had generated a slew of publicity, which directly linked “the ‘Punk Rock’ problem” to Costa Mesa.  In addition, in a paternalistic twist, Det. Kent believed that closure of the Cuckoo’s Nest was necessary to protect juveniles.  Although the Cuckoo’s Nest was a Costa Mesa business, Det. Kent constructed “the ‘Punk Rock’ problem” as the creation of “outsiders”:  “only 25% of the patrons at ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’ are resident Costa Mesa juveniles,” with the majority of arrested juveniles residing in Huntington Beach, Santa Ana, Westminster, Garden Grove, Newport Beach, Brea and Fullerton.  The punk rock problem came to Costa Mesa from somewhere else.

The day after receiving Det. Kent’s memorandum, Cpt. Moody sent a report to Allan Roeder, the Assistant City Manager (akin to a chief executive officer).  Cpt. Moody’s February 11, 1981 report to Roeder consisted of:  “comments from neighboring business people”; “requests and approval for special policing”; “results of special policing and recap of activities for the past six (6) months”; “comments and observations by three officers assigned to policing the area”; and “copies of index card entries for 1714 Placentia Avenue.”  Cpt. Moody, in so many words, admitted that the Special Task Force failed in reining in the unruly punk crowd attracted to the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The dragnet targeted against punks having failed, the remaining option was to strike at the Cuckoo’s Nest itself.  In his report, Cpt. Moody concluded:  “As you can readily see, the Cuckoo’s Nest could easily be termed a public nuisance.”  “Hopefully the City can take the actions necessary to eliminate this . . . problem on a permanent basis.”  Cpt. Moody’s report would “prove to be of crucial importance in [the City’s] efforts to revoke the [Cuckoo’s Nest’s live entertainment] permit,” according to City Attorney Tom Wood.

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