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Michael Hannon dies at 77; LAPD officer joined '60s rights protests

Michael Hannon dies at 77; LAPD officer joined '60s rights protests
At his hearing, in July 1965, Michael Hannon, second from right, listens to testimony from then-Police Chief William H. Parker, left, over off-duty participation in civil rights and peace protests. He later became a lawy... (R. L. Oliver)

Michael B. Hannon, who caused an uproar and nearly lost his job as a Los Angeles police officer for his off-duty participation in 1960s civil rights and peace protests, has died. He was 77.

Hannon, who later defended police officers as a lawyer, died Oct. 2 in Los Angeles of complications of Parkinson's disease, said his wife, Gwen Brown Hannon.

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In 1965, Hannon, who was white, was a seven-year veteran of the force when a Los Angeles Police Department board charged him with 10 counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. After a three-week trial, he was found guilty on nine counts, including directing demonstrators to break through police lines to block the street and failing to notify police that a demonstration was going to occur.

His case was front-page news when he was convicted by the three-member police Board of Rights, which urged his dismissal. Instead, he was suspended for six months.

"Hannon was unusual," Marvin Schachter, who was vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California when it took on the officer's defense, recalled in an interview Tuesday. "Expressing support for civil rights was perhaps dangerous, given the leadership of the police department at the time, and it was of enormous importance to show there was broad support … not only for those who demonstrated in the streets but for those who protected their rights to demonstrate in the streets."

Legendary Chief William H. Parker, however, said Hannon had crossed a line.

"Can a man serve two masters, engaging in police activities at one point and activities inimical to the force while off duty?" Parker said in a speech shortly after Hannon's trial began.

"If we have come to the point where a police department is no longer a quasi-military organization that can decide the code of conduct for its members, we ought to find it out … now," he said.

The controversy over Hannon unfolded during a period of sharp racial tensions in Los Angeles and across the country.

During Parker's reign, the LAPD had been accused of racial animosity numerous times, particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods. In March 1965, Hannon had joined 6,000 protesters gathered downtown in support of the civil rights marchers who had been attacked in Selma, Ala., that month. In August, Los Angeles was rocked by the Watts riots, triggered by an incident involving an African American man and white patrol officers.

The debate over the propriety of Hannon's activities involved several of the city's major figures. Parker testified at his trial, exchanging sharp words with pioneering civil rights lawyer A.L. Wirin. Then-Inspector Ed Davis, who took over as LAPD chief a few years after Parker's death in 1966, called for Hannon's firing as a member of the Board of Rights.

Tom Bradley, the former LAPD lieutenant who would become the city's first black mayor, also weighed in.

"This hearing will determine the policy in many cities on the off-duty conduct of police officers," Bradley, then a city councilman, said of Hannon's trial. "I feel serious implications will result if an effort is made to control an officer's speech outside of his job."

Hannon denied that he had incited demonstrators to break the law. He maintained that he had the right "as a citizen and as a person" to express his political beliefs when he was not on the job. A Socialist and member of the Congress of Racial Equality, he also contended that he was being prosecuted in part because his views were out of step with those of most other officers in the department.

The review board lined up 32 of his fellow officers to testify against him.

"The only reason I was found guilty was because I expressed belief of a liberal point of view rather than the extreme right," he said after his conviction.

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Michael Boyd Hannon was born in Hollywood on Oct. 21, 1936, and grew up in the Silver Lake district. He studied engineering at Los Angeles City College before deciding on a career in law enforcement. He joined the LAPD in 1958.

His wife said that observing white officers' racist treatment of black officers was a factor in his decision to join CORE and Norman Thomas' Democratic Socialists in the early 1960s.

When he joined the department in the late 1950s, "No Negro could work with a white officer, and Negroes could get only certain jobs," he testified. He recounted an incident in which a white officer used a racial slur to address an African American, and he called the department a "bastion of bigotry."

In April 1965, after President Johnson sent thousands of U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in an effort to thwart a communist takeover, Hannon helped organize a protest in Los Angeles at which he carried a sign reading "What Khrushchev did to Hungary, Johnson is doing in Dominican Republic."

His role in that protest was one of the acts that drew the disciplinary review. The board said that as an officer sworn to uphold the law and preserve the peace he "should not be heard to make derogatory statements [about] the duly elected officials of the people."

Parker overruled the board's move to dismiss Hannon, explaining that he chose the lesser penalty of suspension because the board had not proved that Hannon's actions constituted misconduct.

When Hannon returned from his suspension, he was assigned to work alone in a guard booth at the city treasurer's office for 7 1/2 hours a day. "It's a regular job for a policeman, and I haven't got any complaint about it," he said.

He attended Southwestern Law School at night and resigned from the department after passing the bar in 1966.

Over the next four decades he focused on civil rights and civil liberties cases, including defending police officers in Compton and Long Beach against charges of brutality.

Besides his wife, Hannon's survivors include a brother and four children from his first marriage.

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

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