Fifty years ago, five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to guarantee black Americans a voice at the ballot box, other black voices made themselves heard in Los Angeles. By the time the Watts riots were over, 34 people were dead. Watts was Norman E. Edelen’s neighborhood too; he had lived there, and for several of his seven years in the LAPD, he patrolled it and encountered some of the same police racism Watts residents had complained of for years. Edelen later became a writer, and in his first novel, a retired black cop asks, “After a while you wonder if anything will change.” Edelen is still wondering.
There were perhaps 60 black officers in the Los Angeles Police Department when you joined in 1959, including future Mayor Tom Bradley.
When I came out of the academy, I was working Central [Division]. I got transferred to Wilshire, where Tom was the watch commander. I liked Tom — I liked the way he managed things, kind of soft-spoken, very principled, did not tolerate crap, but he didn’t run you over to get his point across. Then I was transferred to 77th.
Watts was part of the 77th Street Division. What was it like there?
I worked Central, Wilshire, Highland Park, University, but only in 77th was it horrible.
I worked on the Watts substation desk for almost two years before I went on patrol. There were six black cops in 77th and I made the seventh. We were uneven numbers, and because black and white cops didn’t work together [in patrol cars], they put me on the desk.
The day before I had to report, I went to 77th to familiarize myself with the station. I pulled into the lot, went in the back door and down the hall, and boom — I’m hammer-locked into the wall. The officer said, “How many times do I have to tell you people not to come in this station?” The cop who’d been at the door smoking when I came in said, “He’s a cop from Wilshire,” and [the other officer] released me.
When I checked in, I opened my locker and there was a shrunken head with an NAACP bumper sticker. I just threw it in the trash.
You should’ve seen the bulletin board. You’d think it was the bulletin board for the Klan. There was a picture of Sammy Davis Jr. when he married [Swedish actress May Britt]. They put “nigger lover” on it. We’d pull that stuff down; by the time we’d come back in, it’d all be back up. Wherever a black cop sat in roll call at 77th, no white cop would sit in that aisle.
Did your superiors try to stop it?
The watch commander never said anything. [When] the watch commander was reading off crimes, a theft, and he’d be describing the merchandise that was stolen — neckties — one of the [white] officers would say, “We’ve got a tie-coon!” The watch commander thought it was funny.
Did any white officers stick up for you?
A white officer I came through the academy with, he was different from the others. He would sit next to me at roll call. One day he told me, “I need to talk to you.” In the parking lot, he said, “I’ve got to stop talking to you.” I could see he was taking it seriously.
I don’t have any doubt it was just a few guys who created this whole scene in 77th. They never got called out about it, and they intimidated everybody else.
What were some of the reactions in the neighborhoods to black officers?
Let me give you an example. We’d get a call, a mild disturbance. I’d say, “Guys, why don’t you break it up and call it a day, because the next car that comes might be the white boys in blue.” It absolutely worked.
Did black residents always show you respect?
My partner and I had a family disturbance call on 120th Street [then a dividing line between black and white neighborhoods]. We rolled up and as soon as the [black] lady at the door sees us, she says, “Oh no no, I don’t want no black cops; you all can’t do nothing for me.” They didn’t [always] believe you had any authority.
How about white residents?
I had a call to a bar at Normandie and Slauson. I expect to see all hell breaking loose. When I get there, there’s white people out in front. One of the patrons tells me, “No black cop can tell us what to do.” Then the bartender said, “There were three or four little nigger kids who came in.” I said, “Did they destroy any property? Did they hurt anybody? He said, “No, but we don’t allow niggers and wetbacks.” I said, “Was your jukebox as loud as it is now? Is it possible the music got their attention?” He said, “It don’t make any difference — we don’t allow [them].” Had the “other LAPD” shown up, he probably would have gotten the kind of action he expected.
The DUI arrest of Marquette Frye on Aug. 11, 1965, by the California Highway Patrol, lit the fuse on the Watts riots.
His mother showed up and she was upset with her son. It was common knowledge even when I was growing up [in Indiana] that whatever you do, avoid the police.
By then you had requested and gotten a transfer to Highland Park, but you were called in. How long were you on patrol during the riots?
Three days. There was a 46-square-mile perimeter. There were officers from everywhere. I was paired with a white officer who said, “I’m not going down there; I didn’t do anything to cause those people to be upset.” So they put us in a car and gave us Western and Santa Monica, and that’s where we patrolled — there was nothing there! All because the white guy said he wasn’t going to go.
And you already thought you were being marginalized because, a few weeks before, you had testified, supposedly confidentially, on behalf of white cop Michael Hannon, whom Chief William H. Parker was trying to fire for his off-duty civil rights activities.
Whenever the ACLU attorney representing Mike asked a question, the prosecutor would always object. So one board member said, “Officer, is there something you would like to tell us?” I said yes, sir. So he put out the press, put out the stenographer. I told them that rather than prosecuting Mike for telling the truth, they ought to listen to him and do something about these [race] problems because all hell’s going to break loose. That night, at Highland Park, my partner did not speak to me the whole shift. The next day I was transferred to daywatch. And Highland Park transferred me to University, where I was treated like a rookie.
And then came the riots. What happened next?
Bradley, who was a city councilman by then, called me and said, “We’re going to move you; it may not be safe.” I was transferred to the chief’s office, where I researched how the Denver PD’s community relations office worked.
Things have changed substantially for minority cops.
I’m always careful to say the department itself wasn’t racist, but it had a problem. [Before Hannon’s case and the riots], nobody [black] was getting promoted. Good cops, with degrees from UCLA, couldn’t make it. The big changes internally started after the Watts riots. [The Hannon case] and the riots were two months apart. I don’t want to imply too much. If the police had listened to Mike, would Watts have happened? Probably.
We [black cops] were conflicted as hell. It was hard to accept that you got promoted because 34 people got killed [in the riots]. The advertising job I took in 1966 [and a job writing for TV at KNBC], I’d often tell my black cop friends I wouldn’t have had those jobs if it hadn’t been for the riots.
And what about for South L.A. residents?
It was slower for the residents. After Rodney King there was some effort; I think the improvement of relations between the community and police really didn’t start taking effect until almost Chief [Charlie] Beck. I was so impressed in the [new police building] the other day with the numbers of minority officers and women. When I worked out of Parker Center, if a black cop or black person got on the elevator, [other passengers] automatically pushed the second floor. There were no blacks above the second floor — all the detectives and other bureaus were the third floor and up.
At the police academy, I got in trouble when I raised the question about too much isolation. For example, I asked the instructor why [LAPD basketball teams] didn’t participate in civilian leagues and get to know the people. But there was this attitude that we were so special, that everybody out there is our enemy. He said, “We can’t be no damn social workers,” and I said, “But we need to be.” There’s 3,000 of us and 3 million people — we’ve got to get along with everybody.
At lunch, I had to run extra laps!
This interview has been edited and condensed. firstname.lastname@example.org