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The LAPD: 1850-1900
The year 1850 found our eager, young nation caught up in a whirlwind of exciting events. The three preceding years had seen tens of thousands of prospectors from around the world lured to California by the promise of sudden riches in the gold fields. The end of the Mexican War had added vast territories to the United States. California was welcomed into the Union as a state and the new state conferred cityhood on the once obscure pueblo of Los Angeles with its 1,610 inhabitants.
For many years thereafter, Los Angeles continued to reel under the impact of an arriving population for which it was totally unprepared. Hundreds of families of law-abiding farmers, ranchers, and storekeepers settled here, but so did gamblers, disillusioned miners from the Sierra foothills, saloonkeepers, horse thieves, and renegades. The Wild West indeed was never wilder.
The creation of what loosely may be called the City’s first Police Department resulted from an 1853 murder. The victim was Jack Whaling, the community’s second City Marshal. His killer met death at the hands of a bounty hunter. This prompted the City’s first "Chief," Dr. A.W. Hope, to organize "The Los Angeles Rangers," who volunteered to assist the beleaguered County Sheriff and Marshal. The Rangers were identified by a white ribbon bearing the imprint in both English and Spanish "City Police - Authorized by the Council of Los Angeles."
"The Los Angeles City Guards," who, during their short-lived career, were attired in the City’s first official police uniform, succeeded the Rangers. Like the Rangers, their effectiveness was questionable. Murders were occurring at the rate of one a day, many resulting from differences of opinion voiced within the City’s 400 gambling halls.
Vigilante justice had been practiced since 1836. When Stephen C. Foster was Mayor in 1854, he resigned to lead a mob, which removed a notorious suspect from jail and proceeded to hang him. Foster was promptly reelected. Such was the tenor of the times.
Because the City lacked a jail, suspects were confined in a county facility in which cells were conspicuously absent. To overcome this inconvenience, prisoners were chained to massive logs in the jail yard.
Sheriff James Barton was assassinated in 1857, followed by a wholesale roundup of suspects, 11 of whom legally departed this life on the gallows. Vigilantes, however, disposed of the actual murderer.
During the 1860s, there was such a climate of violence in Los Angeles, that a terrified group of residents, fearing for their lives and property, appealed to their French homeland for protection. The French government actually deployed troops in Los Angeles! How long they stayed and why their "occupation" was tolerated by the United States government is not known.
Tranquility in the 1870s was something wished for but rarely attained. Increased violence went hand in hand with increased prosperity. There were laws on the books that were not or could not be enforced. A population of 5,614 patronized 285 businesses, of which 110 were saloons.
Racial discrimination was commonplace, protected under an 1850 state law and upheld by the state’s Supreme Court as follows: "No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, any white person. Every person who shall have one-eighth part or more of Negro blood shall be deemed a mulatto and every person who shall have one-half of Indian blood shall be deemed Indian." Later, under the same reprehensible statute, all Asians suffered a similar denial of human rights.
Los Angeles managed to survive without what could pass as a bona fide police department until 1869 when six officers were hired and paid out of funds collected, for the most part, from fines and fees. They were led by City Marshal William C. Warren, who was gifted with $50 to furnish his headquarters and $25 a month for rent. The City Marshal also served as dog catcher and tax collector, and was paid 2Ѕ percent of all tax money he collected. Gambling and prostitution went unregulated, but in 1871 entrepreneurs were required to pay license fees.
Of all the violence prior to a day in October 1871, none was more tragic than a hanging of 19 Chinese by a mob. Denied protection under state law, the victims were easy prey to the frenzied crowd. Eight suspects were arrested and sentenced to San Quentin for two to six years. All were set free in 1873.
In 1875 the first horse patrol trotted down the unpaved streets. Personnel were paid $95 a month for their services, $5 more than the foot patrolmen and only $10 less than the City Marshal. The Department continued to deploy mounted officers until 1916.
The City Marshal and his staff had something less than the happiest of relationships. He was shot and killed by one of his subordinates. That occurrence may have led the City Council to appoint the first Board of Police Commissioners and select Jacob T. Gerkins as Chief in 1876. With Chief Gerkins came the first regulation uniform: a hip-length, blue serge coat and felt hat. Officers bought their own silver, 8-point badges for $6. Emil Harris, who assumed office after relinquishing the management and part ownership of a saloon, succeeded Gerkins in 1877.
From the earliest days, traffic posed problems. Chief George E. Gard fielded the first traffic squad in 1881, composed of an unknown number of officers, to "horse, wagon and carriage" control to ensure pedestrian safety.
Between 1876 and 1889, 15 Chiefs came and went, unable or unwilling to cope with the growing pains of a rowdy community. When, in 1885 Edward McCarthy was Chief, he commanded 18 officers and earned $150 a month. Department equipment was valued at $354. One year later, the Department hired its first two African-American officers, Robert William Stewart and Roy Green.
The Department came of age in 1889 when John M. Glass entered the first of his 11years as Chief. Central Station Headquarters, formerly housed in City Hall, moved to a new facility on West 1st Street, destined to remain in use for 60 years. Glass originated the first entry-level standards for recruit applicants and police professionalism was born under his direction.