It is a curious and tortured tale, dating back more than 100 years--a tale with a cast of characters as diverse as the city itself has become: James Cagney. Raymond Chandler. Humphrey Bogart. Bill Parker. Jack Webb. Joseph Wambaugh. Ed "Hang 'em at the Airport" Davis. And, of course: Daryl F. Gates. Rodney G. King. And many, many others.
The tale is that of the relationship between two powerful institutions, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles media--news media and entertainment media alike--and the violent, corrupt, erratic history of early Los Angeles is both a necessary prelude to and an integral part of that tale.
Los Angeles was a city where one vice cop's girlfriend was the city's most notorious madam--a city that had offshore gambling ships years before Bugsy Siegel knew how to spell Las Vegas.
Chandler's fictional private eye, Philip Marlowe, explored and exposed the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, adroitly weaving his way among old money, new gangsters, crooked cops and low deeds in high places. Bogart played Marlowe in the movies, and Bogart's hard-boiled cynicism seemed ideally suited to the mean streets of what Chandler called "a paradise of fakers . . . a city rich and vigorous and full of crime, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness."
Another fictional detective, "Dragnet's" Sgt. Joe Friday, would come along later, with an altogether different approach to the city and its police, an approach that would quickly give the city--and especially its police--a unique image throughout the world. But that's getting ahead of our story.
Los Angeles was a true Wild West town in its first two "boisterous and bloody decades . . . the 'toughest' town in the entire West," in the words of one scholar, "a way station for desperadoes, gamblers and drifters of every type," with shootings and lynchings as common as booze in a saloon at sundown.
Sporadic attempts to enforce the law failed repeatedly, even after the hiring of a full-time marshal with six deputies in 1869. Two years later, according to a witness, one deputy led a lynch mob that killed 20 Chinese while other deputies stood by and made no effort to intervene.
In 1876--five years after the lynching and 95 years after the city was founded--the Los Angeles Police Department was established, 13 men under the command of Chief Jacob Gerkins.
But the City of Angels was more a city of angles in those early years. Politicians and hoodlums--it was not always easy to tell them apart--routinely ate police chiefs for breakfast, with barely a municipal burp between bites. Gerkins lasted only a year, and 16 men staggered through the revolving door of succession over the next 13 years before the city's first reform movement resulted in a new charter, a Police Commission and some measure of stability under Chief John Glass.
Glass tried to professionalize and modernize the department during his 11-year tenure, but Los Angeles became enmeshed in an endless cycle of scandal and reform, and with each change, a new police chief was sworn in. Twenty more men served as chief between 1900 and 1933; only one lasted as long as four years. James Everington, who served four months, was quoted as saying he never actually ran the department because "an honest man can't do that."
"A crook can be chief, though," Everington said, "if he's clever enough not to get caught."
For most of the first half of this century, Los Angeles was a corrupt, vice-ridden town. A member of the 1937 grand jury said there were 1,800 bookmakers, 600 whorehouses and 200 gambling dens in the city, and--as in other big cities--the criminal elements who ran these illicit enterprises regularly paid off police and politicians to keep their enterprises open.
Movies of the period tended to glamorize gangsters, many of whom--here and elsewhere--were portrayed by Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; the police, meanwhile--especially in Los Angeles--were often depicted as bumblers, bribe takers or both.
Novelists of the 1930s and 1940s were especially hard on Los Angeles and its cops.
"Law is where you buy it in this town," Chandler wrote of Los Angeles in "Farewell, My Lovely."
In "The Long Goodbye," Marlowe complained of a police captain who "smelled (of) . . . the gas of corruption."
No wonder. In 1938, when high-ranking police and city officials grew uneasy over the efforts of a prominent reformer, Capt. Lynne Kynette of the LAPD Special Intelligence Section blew up a car owned by the reformer's chief private investigator--himself a former LAPD officer--with the investigator in it.
The investigator, though critically wounded, survived. Seven months later, Kynette was convicted of attempted murder. Two months after that, Mayor Frank Shaw became the first mayor of a major U.S. city to be recalled. His successor, reform candidate Fletcher Bowron, appointed a new Police Commission, which quickly retired 23 top officials of the Police Department and hired yet another new chief.
Where was the press during this cacophony of vice and violence--decade after decade of municipal chaos in which the police, the sworn upholders and enforcers of the law, routinely broke the law?
It may be difficult to believe in this era of Rodney G. King and Bill Clinton, of home videos and CNN, of "60 Minutes" and supermarket tabloids, but in terms of muckraking journalism, the press was more lap dog than watchdog in this city in those days, and except for some routine coverage of the most notorious events, it largely ignored or whitewashed much of the crime and corruption--what was really happening behind the scenes--especially in the early years.
"Historically, the press has not done an adequate job of investigating law enforcement in this city," says Stephen Reinhardt, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Generally, the press here has been a patsy--a press agent--for the police," Reinhardt said in an interview that, like all the interviews in today's story, was conducted before the recent riots.
Los Angeles newspapers did seem more like civic booster organizations than muckraking journals during the first decades of this century.
"Believing that bad publicity was bad for business, (they) joined in a blanket denial of reality," Joseph Gerald Woods wrote in a 1973 report for the Urban Policy Research Institute. "Los Angeles was proclaimed . . . free of the crime and civic corruption that debased municipal government in other cities."
In his report on "Urban Reform and the Professionalization of the Los Angeles Police Department," which became a Ph.D. dissertation at UCLA, Woods wrote that tabloid newspapers covered spectacular murders in the city but that "self-imposed censorship of (most other) crime news by the daily papers" made possible the "myth of the crime-free city proclaimed by each new administration from 1915 to 1938," despite more than 70 gangland murders here in a two-year period beginning in 1930.
In fact, Woods wrote in a footnote to his 511-page report, the reluctance of most Los Angeles newspapers to print even routine crime news was so complete during the first decades of the 20th Century that he would not have been able to conduct his study had it not been for copies of the Los Angeles Record, the smallest of the city's dailies (which later merged and, in 1940, went out of business).
The Record sensationalized and politicized much of its coverage, but it also provided much of what passed for crusading investigative journalism on municipal corruption and police misconduct in the 1920s and 1930s. The Los Angeles Express and the Daily News (no relation to the Daily News published in the San Fernando Valley) also provided occasional exposes of the Police Department and City Hall before they, too, went through mergers and bankruptcy.
But The Times, as the longtime, dominant player in the local power structure, consistently and vigorously opposed reform--and vigorously supported the Police Department and its various chiefs. The paper was an "apologist" for the corrupt city political machine, in Woods' words.
The Times backed the police largely because Times management saw the police as the most effective weapon against what it called the "radicals" and union organizers that the paper and its Establishment allies regarded as a threat to the status quo.
The Times and the Examiner (which is defunct), the two dominant papers at the time, often praised the Police Department's infamous "red squad," an intelligence unit that shadowed, hounded, raided and bludgeoned suspected radicals in the 1930s.
For more than two decades after that, former Police Chief Edward M. Davis recalled in an interview late last year, major local newspapers felt that anything the Police Department did was "right" and that "anyone who objected . . . was a goddamn pinko, red, Commie son of a bitch."
The Times was especially supportive of James Davis (no relation to Ed Davis), who was the LAPD chief from 1926 to 1929 and again from 1933 to 1938. James Davis was widely perceived as being far more interested in harassing radicals, vagrants and what The Times characterized as "union-labor parasites" and "the shock troops of subversive vandalism" than in ending corruption. When civil libertarians protested the "brutal, unconstitutional tactics" of Davis' officers, The Times stormed to his defense. Charges against him were "vile" and "reprehensible," The Times editorialized. "He is honest, energetic, efficient."
In the mid-1930s, when poor immigrants began moving to California in a desperate search for better lives, a search chronicled in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Chief Davis had more than 100 of his officers deputized in counties along the state's eastern border. Their job: to "keep out of the state the bums, crooks, won't-works and indigents who regularly make this city their winter haven," in the words of a Times editorial that lauded Davis and his department as "this city's 'finest'--and there are no finer."
Times reporters and editors advised--and often dictated to--the mayor and City Council then, and in the mayoral election of 1933, Woods writes, "only The Times, the private power agencies, a few die-hard prohibitionists and certain criminal interests" supported the incumbent mayor against the newest reform candidate.
Ed Davis, now about to retire after 12 years as a state senator, chuckles when he recalls what it was like for police officials dealing with The Times as kingmaker, even as late as the 1950s.
"I was a lieutenant then, the head of the Police Protective League," he said, "and when we wanted a raise for the men, we didn't go to the mayor or the City Council; we went to Hotch (L.D. Hotchkiss, then editor of The Times).
"If Hotch said OK, you were in. Then you went to see the mayor, but it was all set up before you got there. The Times was the power; you got the raise."
All that changed drastically after Otis Chandler succeeded his father, Norman, as publisher of The Times in 1960, as Davis recalls and as David Halberstam and other chroniclers of the period have noted. The Times remained a powerful Establishment player, but it also became a serious, responsible newspaper, and it began to exert its power more through legitimate journalism--by covering events in its news columns and commenting on them on its editorial pages--than by throwing its weight around back rooms and meeting rooms at City Hall.
Eventually, some criticized The Times for being anti-Establishment and anti-police. Davis grew so angry with The Times' coverage of his department in the mid-1970s that he called William F. Thomas, editor of the paper from 1972 to 1989, "Public Enemy No. 1."
On another occasion, Davis told his press aides not to obstruct reporters' access to a potentially dangerous disaster scene because "newsmen have the constitutional right to get themselves killed in the pursuit of a story--and in Los Angeles, we're long overdue."
But the change in police-press relations from the days of Chief James Davis to the days of Chief Ed Davis was far more than a matter of different Davises at Parker Center and different Chandlers at Times Mirror Square. Change often comes from the bottom as well as from the top. Publishers and editors, like mayors and police chiefs, set policy, but what reporters and street cops do on the job, day in and day out, sometimes has more impact on what happens.
Until the last 25 years or so, in Los Angeles as elsewhere, street cops and the reporters who wrote about them were generally friends, quasi-colleagues in many instances, good guys fighting together in a war against the bad guys. Many reporters carried badges. Some carried guns.
Cops helped reporters who got in a little trouble--even checked them into flophouses in Little Tokyo when they got drunk--and reporters helped cops by not writing anything that would embarrass them.
This syndrome was common everywhere, but it was especially entrenched in Los Angeles because of the long, cozy history of police-press relations and because of the longstanding attempt by the local press to depict the city in the most favorable light possible, as a sunny, secure, crime-free place to live and buy a home and build a business.
Norman (Jake) Jacoby, who covered the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 50 years, dating back to 1935, for City News Service and the now-defunct Herald-Express, can recall routinely drinking, partying and fishing with friends on the force. Eric Malnic, who came to work as a reporter for The Times in 1958, remembers the days when any Times reporter who got a traffic ticket from an LAPD officer would just give it to City Editor Taylor Trumbo. Trumbo would scrawl his initials on it, send it to police headquarters and "that was the last you heard of that," Malnic said.
Bill Hazlett, who covered the police for newspapers in Wichita, Kan., Denver, Long Beach and Los Angeles before his death in 1983, sometimes seemed to have almost as many people from law enforcement as from the press at his annual New Year's Eve party, and he loved sharing stories with them about his experiences with his cop pals.
He told about the police captain who once gave him a gun and made him part of a posse chasing a cop killer and he bragged about going on stakeouts and raids with police--and about turning a stickup man over to police after the man confessed to him.
One of Hazlett's favorite tales involved the advice a cop friend once gave him after hearing that Hazlett had been robbed twice.
"He walked into the other room and came out with a sawed-off High Standard .22-caliber revolver with the serial numbers filed off," Hazlett said. "He tossed it in my lap and said: 'Next time, kill the bastard.' "
The officer even told Hazlett how to arrange the scene and lie to the police so he could literally get away with murder.
Cops and reporters were friends during that era in part because they generally shared common values and in part because they needed each other. Covering the police in those days meant one thing--covering crime, which increasingly emerged from the journalistic shadows here as it had long since done elsewhere. Everyone was against crime--police, reporters and readers alike--and no one worried much about criminals' rights; the cops caught the crooks and told the reporters all about it and the reporters wrote about it. That made the cops and the reporters both look good.
Nowhere did the Los Angeles Police Department look better, though, than in "Dragnet," the Jack Webb drama that began on radio in 1949, moved into a regular television slot in January, 1952, and ran weekly for most of that decade. (An updated version of the show returned from 1967 to 1970).
In the 40 years since "Dragnet" first came to television, the LAPD has become Hollywood's favorite law enforcement agency; no television season since has been without at least one LAPD show, and more than 20 such shows have been on the air--everything from "Police Story," "Police Woman," "Columbo," "Hunter," "S.W.A.T.," "T.J. Hooker," "21 Jump Street" and Webb's own "Adam-12" to such short-lived series as "Sam," "The Blue Knight," "Most Wanted," "Get Christie Love," "The New Breed" and "B.A.D. CATS."
But "Dragnet," which is still shown in late-night reruns in many cities, including Los Angeles, was the prototypical cop show and a significant fixture in pop culture for years. The show was seen by 38 million viewers a week at its peak, and not only did it influence the wave of cop shows that followed but its most recognizable elements, a melodramatic musical theme ("Dum-da-dum-dum, dum-da-dum-dum-DUMM") and the stiff-necked, stick-figure performances of its lead actors, provided material for two generations of satirists, from Stan Freberg to Dan Aykroyd.
"Dragnet" was the ultimate symbiosis between the Police Department and the media, "pure propaganda" for the department in the words of Wambaugh, the LAPD sergeant who became a best-selling novelist and the creator of "Police Story."
One 1955 "Dragnet" episode was devoted entirely to an orientation tour of LAPD headquarters: lobby, communications room, crime lab, padded cells, interrogation room, even the cafeteria; the tour concluded with Friday's partner saying: "It makes a fella feel good just to be a small part of it."
Unlike shows about New York police, such as "Naked City," "Kojak" and "Cagney & Lacey," which painted a gritty portrait of harried cops engaged in a never-ending struggle with street scum and bureaucrats, "Dragnet" and most of the other LAPD shows made a cop's life seem attractive. Even the bad guys on "Dragnet" often seemed more pitiable than evil.
On "Dragnet," the bad guys always got caught, though, and they were always caught through honest, diligent, intelligent police work. No deals. No threats. No cutting corners.
"Dragnet" police were unfailingly polite, even when confronted with drunk, abusive citizens. On "Dragnet," the police addressed everyone--citizens, suspects, their superiors--as sir or ma'am and nodded and clucked sympathetically no matter how outrageously they were provoked.
"Dragnet" cops were as incorruptible as they were imperturbable, and, unlike some New York cops and even some L.A. cops in more recent movies, "Dragnet" cops did not abuse their power or their public. They followed correct police procedure and the U.S. Constitution as rigorously as if both had been tattooed on their hearts-- or on the insides of their eyelids.
Even violence was minimal in "Dragnet"; Webb once boasted that in the first 60 episodes, there were only three fights and 15 shots fired.
But "Dragnet" was more than mere entertainment. It was also a recruiting tool for the Police Department.
"I became a Los Angeles police officer 28-plus years ago because I watched 'Dragnet,' " said Sgt. Chuck Sale of the LAPD Research and Planning Division. "What I saw there were serious people engaged in serious work. . . . I responded to the idealism conveyed . . . by Jack Webb."
Might "Dragnet" also have attracted officers who responded to something else in the show--the "fascist ideal, a force of bright-eyed Aryans who are grimly efficient," in the words of Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book "The Culture of TV"?
"Media depictions often attract certain kinds of people," Miller says. "When the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was sensationalized in the media in the 1960s, it had the effect of attracting reckless, violent types into the organization. That actually changed the character of the organization.
"I'd be surprised if the general depiction of LAPD didn't exert a similar kind of influence."
Might "Dragnet" also have influenced how real-life LAPD officers behaved?
Sandi Gibbons, a newspaper and wire service reporter in Los Angeles for 24 years before joining the district attorney's press office in 1989, says "Dragnet" and a few other LAPD shows may have given many "an unrealistic expectation of what a police officer is and should be." Because these TV cops were never shown doing anything wrong, Gibbons says, some real-life LAPD cops may have come to feel they, too, "could do no wrong."
They could justify whatever they were doing because, after all, they were the law, the LAPD, so their actions by definition must be right, says David D. Dotson, an assistant chief who was an unsuccessful candidate to succeed Chief Gates. Television and motion picture portrayals of police do "influence how officers perceive their job and how the public perceives us," Dotson says.
So the public, conditioned to think of LAPD officers as "next to God," in Gibbons' words, may have automatically dismissed charges that LAPD officers acted improperly, permitting such behavior to continue, unchecked by police and public alike.
Wambaugh, who spent 14 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and more than 20 years writing about police, says he does not think anyone with "more than an 80 IQ ever thought for a moment that . . . ('Dragnet') reflected reality."
But Edwin Delattre, dean of the School of Education at Boston University and author of "Cops and Character: Ethics in Policing," says: "It's pretty clear that many people who see fictional portrayals of police believe them to be true."
Besides, reality, or at least realism, is exactly what "Dragnet" tried to sell.
"This is the city -- Los Angeles, California. I work here. I'm a cop. It was Wednesday, April 9. It was warm in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of Robbery-Homicide Division. The boss is Lt. Ianone. My partner is Officer Frank Smith. My name's Friday."
Each episode of "Dragnet" opened with a Webb voice-over similar to this, along with an aerial view of Los Angeles and the announcement: "The story you're about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent."
Each episode ended with the formal disposition of that night's case:
"On December 28, trial was held in Department 184, Superior Court of the state of California, for the county of Los Angeles . . . . The defendant was tried and convicted of armed robbery. He was sentenced to a term of not less than five nor more than 15 years. He is now serving that sentence in state prison, San Quentin, California."
"Dragnet" stories were "true" because they were based on real cases from LAPD files. Any LAPD officer who had an idea for a "Dragnet" story could submit it, and if Webb liked the idea, the officer got to work with the writer and make some extra money.
To heighten the show's sense of verisimilitude, "Dragnet" used real Los Angeles place names--San Pedro, Echo Park Lake, South Ardmore Avenue--and the names of actual LAPD officers, all of whom spoke in station house jargon: "MO" "APB," "R and I," "drunk tank," "bumper-to-bumper tail," "dust for latent prints," "book him on a 211." Progress through each episode was marked by Webb's repeated voice-overs: "1:10 p.m. We returned to the office. . . . 2:40 p.m. The captain agreed to arrange . . . 7 p.m. We briefed . . . 10:30 p.m. The stakeout continued. . . ."
Sgt. Friday's trademark line, "Just the facts, ma'am," perfectly captured both the tone of the show and Friday's flat, monosyllabic persona. Friday was a bachelor, with no past and no personal life--laconic, unflappable, almost robotic; he walked ramrod straight, swiveling unnaturally at the elbows and neck, and he displayed the strongest feelings of shock or disgust with only the barest flicker of his eyebrow or tic of his lips.
But Webb was the director and producer as well as the star of "Dragnet," and, a stickler for technical accuracy, he once had his crew crawl around the floor in then-Sgt. Dan Cooke's press office at the Police Department to count the number of spots on the linoleum so he could recreate them accurately in the press office on the "Dragnet" set.
When Cooke was promoted to lieutenant, he returned the favor and demonstrated the unique, life-imitates-art-imitates-life relationship between "Dragnet" and the Police Department by making Sgt. Friday's badge number (714) his own. Even now, more than 20 years later--10 years after Webb's death, three years after Cooke's own retirement--his home telephone answering machine plays the opening notes of the "Dragnet" theme followed by: "After the beep, just the facts, ma'am."
A more tangible Webb legacy is the Police Academy Trust Fund, to which he contributed 6% of the profit he made on the first showing of each episode of "Dragnet" and "Adam-12." Two major buildings at the academy, where LAPD officers are trained, were built with the proceeds from the fund.
But the LAPD gained far more than money from Webb's portrayals, and the department so identified him as one of their own that when he died in 1982, flags were flown at half-staff at police headquarters in Parker Center and at stations throughout the city.
"Dragnet" and "Adam-12" became not only recruiting tools but training films for other departments, bringing the Los Angeles Police Department such fame and adulation that even the official history of the agency says: "The impact 'Dragnet' had on the public did more to develop public relations and promote the professional police image (Chief) Parker sought than did any other department program."
It helped, of course, that William H. Parker and "Dragnet' came along at about the same time.
Parker became chief in 1950, less than two years before "Dragnet" made its television debut, and by the time he died in 1966, only FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was better known among American lawmen.
Peter Johnson of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
About This Series
The Times today begins publication of a five-part series examining how the media--news and entertainment media alike--have covered and portrayed the Los Angeles Police Department over the years. Work on the series, which was largely complete before the recent Los Angeles riots, began last fall and included scrutiny of several thousand newspaper and magazine stories, books and television videotapes and interviews with more than 100 journalists, civic leaders, scholars and past and present law enforcement officers.
* Today: LAPD's history and image.
* Monday: William H. Parker and a time of change.
* Tuesday: Excessive force in the LAPD.
* Wednesday: The Rodney G. King beating and its aftermath.
* Thursday: The media, LAPD and the riots.
A Changing Relationship
Relations between the press and the Los Angeles Police Department changed dramatically in the decades between the Davises. When James Davis (above, center) was chief of police in the 1920s and 1930s, cops and reporters were friends--fishing and drinking buddies who looked out for each other. But by the time Ed Davis was chief, from 1969 to 1978--amid social revolution and the skepticism born of Vietnam and Watergate--relations between reporters and the police had become so confrontational that Ed Davis called the editor of The Times "public enemy No. 1."
From Raymond Chandler in the 1940s and 1950s to Joseph Wambaugh in 1970s, '80s and '90s, writers have found the Los Angeles Police Department a rich vein for fiction. Cops were subordinate players in the corrupt Los Angeles of Chandler and his private eye Philip Marlowe, and they are central figures in the contemporary Los Angeles of ex-cop Wambaugh. But it was "Dragnet," the 1950s police melodrama starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, that gave the LAPD its nationwide image as the epitome of professional law enforcement--honest, humane and efficient. "Dragnet" was the ultimate symbiosis between the LAPD and the media--"pure propaganda" for the department, in Wambaugh's words.