Peter Pitchess, Sheriff Who Modernized Agency, Dies
Peter J. Pitchess, the Los Angeles County sheriff who transformed the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department from a rustic cowboy agency into a modern professional law enforcement organization, died Sunday at his home in Newport Beach. He was 87.
Designated “sheriff emeritus for the rest of his life” by the Board of Supervisors, Pitchess helped pin on Sheriff Lee Baca’s badge, at Baca’s request, when the new sheriff was sworn in Dec. 7. The wheelchair-bound Pitchess, who had groomed then feuded with his successor, Sherman Block, had been absent from the department’s center of power for 16 years.
Although he was esteemed by the law enforcement community and had supporters within the minority community, Pitchess and his department also had many critics in that community.
The criticism mushroomed in 1970, when sheriff’s deputies moved against a protest in East Los Angeles of the Vietnam War. Dozens of people were injured and arrested and three died, including journalist Ruben Salazar, who was killed by a tear gas projectile fired by a deputy.
Known for his political spats with the county Board of Supervisors and Democratic Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., Pitchess also earned a reputation throughout his 23-year tenure for strengthening his department. He fought continually for a larger force, better jail facilities, and better pay and equipment for his deputies.
Pitchess, who served from Dec. 1, 1958, to Jan. 17, 1982, took the county from the days of Eugene Biscailuz--his colorful cowboy predecessor who headed parades astride a silver-saddled palomino--to Pitchess’ hand-picked successor, the steady, low-key and nonconfrontational Block.
Pitchess bridged the personality gap as well as the modernization gap between the Biscailuz and Block eras. He was downright dull compared to Biscailuz, but, with his unabashed comments on politics, crime and the world at large, colorful in contrast to Block.
Born in Salt Lake City on Feb. 26, 1912, Pitchess had a solid, religious upbringing in a Greek Orthodox family. He studied at the University of Utah, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1938 and law degree in 1940.
He began his four decades in law enforcement with the FBI, working 12 years in several offices throughout the country. He left the agency in 1952 and spent a year as chief of security for Richfield Oil Corp. before signing on with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as Biscailuz’s undersheriff.
As the consummate white-collar cop, Pitchess became, as one rival acknowledged, the “logical successor” to the retiring Biscailuz, who groomed him to win the 1958 election.
“Good law enforcement” was the colorless but comforting slogan of Pitchess’ first campaign.
Although within two weeks of taking office Pitchess graciously accepted a saddle from the Sheriff’s Silver Mounted Posse, and helped plan the 15th annual Sheriff’s Championship Rodeo, the days of the county’s cowboy sheriff’s office were over.
To begin professionalizing the department, Pitchess called in all the hundreds of special deputy sheriff badges in the hands of celebrities, members of the media and political activists, and officially disbanded the county’s informal posse.
“Historically, reputable people from all walks of life have been called up to assist a handful of regular officers when occasion demanded it under the rule of posse comitatus,” he said. “But the complexities of our modern day society require persons enforcing the law to possess knowledge, training and skills far beyond the requirements of the past.”
Those complexities manifested themselves in the late 1960s with unrest fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War and by discontent among ethnic minorities.
There was no more vivid example of that than in August 1970 during the National Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles. What started out as a peaceful protest against the war, and what was seen as Latinos’ disproportionate role in fighting it, escalated into riot proportions. More than $1 million in property was destroyed, and dozens of people were injured and arrested. Salazar, a columnist for The Times and news director of KMEX-TV Channel 34, was killed instantly by a tear-gas projectile fired by a sheriff’s deputy into a bar where the newsman and his cameraman had stopped to use a restroom.
The death of Salazar fueled simmering criticism of the Sheriff’s Department. The resulting coroner’s inquest, the longest and costliest in the county’s history, found only that Salazar died at the hands of another.
Pitchess maintained that “there was absolutely no misconduct on the part of the deputies involved [in the incident] or the procedures they followed.” However, the county ended up paying the Salazar family hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.
The sheriff did battle regularly with the Board of Supervisors to add deputies to his department, improve jails, purchase equipment and upgrade pay and benefits.
He retained his salty belief in independence for his department throughout his life, advising Baca at his swearing-in ceremony: “You are the sheriff. You and your colleagues will run this department [without] interference from outside.”
Typical of Pitchess’ innovations, he introduced helicopters for freeway pursuits and crowd control in 1964. Although the department had employed helicopters since 1957 for emergency fire and rescue work, Pitchess’ new use of his “eye in the sky” was watched carefully by law enforcement agencies across the country.
In 1960 he set up the department’s Special Enforcement Detail, one of the country’s first specially trained SWAT teams. And in 1962 he equipped all deputies with billy clubs, saying they were necessary for combating riotous juvenile delinquents.
Pitchess linked his department’s far-flung stations and jails by Teletype and began computerized record processing in the early 1960s.
Whenever county supervisors balked at approving the money for his improvements, Pitchess took his campaign to the public, stumping for support with sophisticated harangues against organized crime, pornography, “dope” and juvenile delinquency.
In professionalizing the department, Pitchess followed a tough, military approach. He quickly investigated charges of officer misconduct, and any deputies who broke the law or his rules were promptly disciplined or dismissed.
Deputies said Pitchess became angry if they failed to jump to attention when he visited their stations unannounced, and a former president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs said after Pitchess’ retirement: “People were afraid of Pitchess. He’d lop your head off and transfer you to the jail in Mira Loma.”
An abrupt administrator, Pitchess seemed to relish his confrontational debates with the supervisors.
As an ultra-conservative Republican, he also welcomed a typical opportunity in 1961 to joust with Democratic Gov. Brown. The front-page row began when Pitchess and others criticized Brown for commuting the death sentence of a former Glendale police technician known as “Machine Gun” Walker, who was convicted of murdering a California highway patrolman.
Brown snapped back that “constant criticism by people who obviously are not doing good jobs themselves is not doing law enforcement any good.”
Pitchess said he was “astounded” by Brown’s remark and called it “an irresponsible and intemperate attack of personal animosity.” Pitchess accused Brown of failing to provide leadership for law enforcement throughout California.
The usually contentious Board of Supervisors rallied to the sheriff’s side, passing a resolution praising him and his department for consistently excellent law enforcement.
Pitchess listened to suggestions that he run for governor himself--or U.S. senator or state attorney general. It was also rumored in the early 1960s that Pitchess was the likely choice to become Chicago’s police commissioner and clean up its scandal-ridden Police Department.
“But I have decided,” he said when announcing his bid for reelection in 1962, “that sheriff of Los Angeles County is as important a position as any I could consider.”
He had settled into the job to stay.
Pitchess was frequently a delegate to Republican national conventions, and in 1963 served as vice chairman of the 23-member California Advisory Committee to conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
The sheriff’s strong community support, on which he relied for easy reelection and mustering public opinion against the Board of Supervisors, stemmed partially from his dedicated involvement in religious, service and law enforcement organizations.
Pitchess was so successful as honorary chairman of a KTTV Channel 11 fund-raising telethon for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation that he was labeled a “one-man posse.”
With his wife, Athena, and two sons, John and Andrew, Pitchess also was active at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles.
At 70, Pitchess left office early, strategically allowing Block to finish out his term and run in the 1982 election as an incumbent. But the two began feuding almost immediately. Pitchess never returned to the Hall of Justice and pointedly ignored his immediate successor at public functions.
The bitter falling-out between mentor and protege was said to have stemmed from Pitchess’ request at the time of his retirement to continue using a sheriff’s sedan until he could buy a car. Coached to avoid any impropriety, Block said no.
“He flamed out of the office at that point,” Block said years later. “Almost immediately, he began criticizing me to other people, telling them that I was an ingrate and that I was undoing what he had achieved.”
Not even a mutual friend, then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, could patch up the rift.
“I think it’s silly, because, as I told Pitchess, he devoted a good portion of his time to that Sheriff’s Department--a lot of it has his name on it--and this ought to be a time when he can go back to the department and bask in the glory of having been a great sheriff over a great period of time,” Gates said.
In the 1990 election, Pitchess lent support to the late Sheriff Biscailuz’s cousin, Sheriff’s Det. Roland C. Biscailuz, in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat the incumbent Block.
“He’s an angry old man who has never been able to accept the fact that he’s no longer the sheriff of Los Angeles County,” Block said of Pitchess then.
After Block’s death and Baca’s election, the new sheriff tried to make amends by welcoming Pitchess back into the relocated departmental headquarters. He also visited Pitchess in the hospital and at his Orange County home as the sheriff emeritus slipped into his final decline.
Pitchess is survived by his wife and two sons.
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