In his new book, L.A. Noir, journalist John Buntin tells the tawdry tales behind how the City of Angels created its police force. Now, five weeks after venerable Chief William Bratton announced his retirement, Buntin talks to The Crime Report's Julia Dahl about where the LAPD has been, and where it may be headed.
The Crime Report: Your portrait of Los Angeles in the first half of twentieth century depicts a city run by a cabal of elected and appointed officials in cahoots with the city's underworld. Tell me about “The Combination.” What were its roots and reach?
John Buntin: The Combination was an arrangement that was borne of Prohibition. Until 1920 the political machine in Los Angeles was largely controlled by a small group of business leaders, including the Chandler family who owned the Los Angeles Times. These were the boosters who famously sold Los Angeles to the world and transformed a dusty little town of 5,000 souls in 1875 into by 1920 the biggest city in the West, with a population of 520,000. They had vast wealth, they had printing presses, and that was very important in a city as new as Los Angeles – politics was very expensive.
In 1920 the business establishment tapped a star USC quarterback turned political fixer named Kent Parrot and his task was to run the mayoral election campaign of George Cryer, an agreeable – to the business community–candidate. Once Cryer was elected, Parrot did something unexpected and horrifying, he essentially turned on the business community. He realized that Prohibition had created a very large underworld economy which he could organize and tap for revenue which would allow him to compete with the business establishment. So he created a rival power block and stunned the Los Angeles Times
They fought back…and in 1926 Parrot and the Chandlers agreed to arrange a truce and the linchpin of the truce was hinged on the appointment of James Davis to run the LAPD. Basically both sides needed the LAPD for certain purposes. Parrot and his partners wanted the Metropolitan and Chinatown Purity Squads to essentially collect from the underworld. The business establishment wanted the LAPD and its Red Squad to maintain Los Angeles's reputation as an open shop city and do combat with radical groups. Both sides got what they wanted with the appointment of chief Davis and that was the establishment of what I describe as “The Combination.”
TCR: Were the LAPD just pawns in this game?
Buntin: It was a fairly subtle game. The majority of the force was not into wholesale corruption. What you saw was a kind of selective enforcement. Prohibition in most big cities created what one could describe as immigrant entrepreneurial activities, particularly for Italian and Jewish organized crime figures. In Los Angeles people arrived from San Francisco and tried to set up traditional Prohibition-style bootlegging. But they found that the LAPD was always on hand to crack down their operations while it ignored the operations of the associates of [The Combination].
The police would still raid from time to time, but [Combination members] would get a heads up. Many of the casinos downtown would have designated group of people who would be trotted in and arrested on raids then promptly released. The casinos would operate for six or nine months and once the pressure became intense the police would do very high profile raids and they would shut down and reappear around the block. Occasionally there were sensational scandals which would result in the police chief being outed, replaced by someone new. But it was sort of a pattern of scandal, proclamations of reform, and then new scandals, which continues in an uninterrupted fashion for decades.
TCR: Did citizens simply accept that police were more interested in protecting themselves and their patrons than the public, or was there any kind of organized outcry?
Buntin: The cycles of scandal revealing corruption, leading to a new chief who plans to reform the department, accompanied by high profile vice raids and so forth was a feature of city life. And the police department was very aggressive in the number of people it arrested. They were particularly known for raiding immigrant neighborhoods like Little Italty and busting small-time people who were, you know, making wine in their backyard. A significant percentage of the population was actually arrested every year.
However, the question of what the public wanted from police is an interesting one. In the 1930s, the LAPD really was not organized on paramilitary lines. There were a vast number of people with badges entitling them to rather shadowy privileges…There is public research on what the public wanted from the police department in the late 1930s, and what the public expressed a desire for was they wanted a police force to be more military. They wanted them to be neat in their appearance. They wanted them to be polite. And they wanted them to take harsher action against [African Americans], radicals and others…The public wasn't particularly concerned with police conduct.
TCR: What was it about Bill Parker's that made him the right man to create the modern LAPD?
Buntin: Parker is a very interesting personality. He grew up in a law enforcement family–his grandfather was the DA who cleaned up Deadwood. Parker originally wanted to be an attorney but instead in 1927 he became a policeman and got his law degree at night school. Parker was a very ornery and by all accounts brilliant person, and he hung in there, despite very pronounced feelings of persecution. He quickly figured out that the role of the police in Los Angeles was not exactly to suppress vice and corruption.
TCR: Parker's rise seems to dovetail with the rise of so-called “professional policing.” What were some of his reforms? And what is his legacy?
Buntin: Parker's view was that it was essential to free the police department from the control of corrupt politicians. Parker was very innovative in a number of ways. He was very focused on research and he created a research and analysis division. He streamlined the bureaucracy and he embraced statistical measurements. I think all those initiatives…were extremely influential.
One of the things that prompted me to write the book was the realization of the extent to which twentieth century Los Angeles was affected by the system that Bill Parker built. As a crime reporter, I'd known the name and known that he was prominently associated with the early professional model of policing…But the realization that in the mid-1930s he had helped draft the charter amendments that laid the groundwork for the autonomous police department, which he later brought into being from 1950 to 1966, and which wasn't dismantled until Warren Christopher stepped in after the Rodney King Riots in 1992, that was the light-bulb moment for me.
Parker's legacy is very mixed, and it's striking how divergent opinions are on Parker. He is widely considered in minority communities in particular and by liberal Angelenos to be, as the Los Angeles Times described him, “an arrogant racist.” But among the old guard in the department he is seen as a hero of law and order conservatism. And many see him as the man who desegregated the LAPD. One of the many challenges of the book was to try to bring him to life as a person of his time with traits both admirable and in a few instances deplorable.
Currently, Parker is a very controversial figure in Los Angeles. In about a month, the city is going to unveil and dedicate a new police headquarters. The current police headquarters is called The Parker Center. There was a movement in the City Council to name the new police headquarters the Parker Center as well, that in turn sparked a serious counter-reaction…and the Police Commission which voted unanimously, I believe, to oppose the proposal. And many others blame Chief Parker for the Watts Riots and what followed. So that legacy is quite raw.
TCR: When Warren Christopher put the LAPD under consent decree after the King riots it was a rebuke to Parker's model, which created an opening for another reformer: Bill Bratton. What similarities do you see between Parker and outgoing chief Bratton?
Buntin: I think that if you were to make a list of the police chiefs who have greatly influenced LAPD, Bill Bratton would belong on it. I think it's impossible to say now what his legacy will be. Part of what makes Parker so significant was the fact that the system he built continued after his death and was built upon by his successors. Will the innovations that Bratton has put in place and will the culture change that he's tried to instill in the department take hold? I think there are reasons for cautious optimism.
TCR: Bratton, like Parker, had a clear mission to clean up and reform parts of the LAPD. Will Bratton's replacement have a similarly clear directive?
Buntin: Everyone wants Brattons' reforms and approach to continue, that is a universal desire…But it's going to be a very difficult job to fill in Los Angeles. The city has a $400 million deficit…and the state is releasing large numbers of prisoners from the correctional system, which, given what we know about recitivism rates, seems likely to create some challenges. Crime is down dramatically over Bratton's tenure–it's going to be a very hard set of shoes to fill.
TCR: Is the LAPD in danger of falling into old patters with Bratton's exit?
Buntin: I don't think so. There are certainly people who do worry about that, and there's a nearly universal wish that Bratton had stayed longer. Although a seven-year tenure as a big-city police chief is an extraordinarily long one, I think the average is about two-and-a-half years now. But realistically there's no going back to the exact past. According to the surveys by the Los Angeles Times and the survey Harvard’s Kennedy School did of the consent decree, I believe 83 percent of Angelenos now believe the LAPD is doing a good to excellent job, which is an astonishing high-water mark, and it's so fragile and new that everyone wants to continue.
And Chief Bratton himself has very interesting things to say about where the department is. One of the points he made was that the department isn't used to having a citizenry who really appreciates what they do. He expressed a desire, I'm paraphrasing him here, that as the department starts to get feedback of a positive nature that that will really be the process that solidifies his approach to policing.
TCR: What kind of leader do you think the LAPD needs today?
Buntin: I think that what the department really needs is exactly what Bratton himself identified: it needs to see that there are real returns in terms of cooperation and affection for the type of policing it's now doing.
If you look at the city's response to the May Day MacArthur Park incident, that was a critical moment and a very difficult moment for Bratton. It blindsided him. And he regards it as one of the black spots on his record as a police chief. At the same time, it passed very quickly and the disciplinary action that Bratton took was received with great satisfaction by everyone. So it does seem that Los Angeles has kind of moved beyond the kind of racial antagonisms of the recent past. I certainly hope that's the case, for the sake of the city and for the sake of my prospects as a pundit.