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The LAPD: 1900-1925
By the early 1900s the population of the City had increased to more than 100,000, with fewer than 70 officers struggling to maintain the peace. They were largely occupied in keeping violence and traffic under some semblance of control but an additional problem added to their difficulties. Heavy-handed machine politics had entered the picture and would remain for years to come. The Mayor’s office assumed increasing control of the Department and its policies. This accounts, at least in part, for the appointment of 16 Chiefs between 1900 and 1923. Political interference, however, did not prevent the start of Civil Service in 1903, and, in response to citizen demands, the increase in sworn personnel to 200. The gambling and vice of the 1850’s still prevailed, reduced at times by reformers only to be restored when powerful private interests in one way or another bought official protection.
After serving as interim Police Chief for about one year, Walter H. Auble resumed duties as Captain of Detectives when, in September 1908, he was shot and killed by a burglary suspect. He became the third and highest ranking officer to lose his life in the line of duty.
The nation, by 1910, was well under way to becoming industrialized with labor and management battling each other for dominance. Opposition to organized labor was frequently voiced by the Los Angeles Times, the community’s leading newspaper. Its workers had embarked on a prolonged strike and international news was created when, on October 1, the Times building was dynamited, causing 21 deaths. Two union organizers were convicted and imprisoned after being defended by the celebrated attorney, Clarence Darrow.
After heading the Department from 1911 to 1915, Charles E. Sebastian became the first Chief to be elected Mayor, partly because of his vigorous crusade against vice. Adverse publicity concerning Sebastian’s personal life triggered his early departure from City Hall.
If he is remembered for nothing else, Chief Clarence E. Snively, successor to Sebastian in 1915, recognized the menace of cigarette smoking. His "Anti-Cigarette Clinic" tried to influence juveniles to shun the habit. Snively contended that "…the use of cigarettes by children is a great cause of delinquency. The nicotine poison which enters the body… has a tendency to make weak bodies, weak intellects and weak morals." The records reveal that the Clinic attracted 2,355 "patients" during its first two months. But a year later, both the Clinic and its founder were gone. One of the bright spots of the period was the start of the Department’s first official training program in 1916.
With our nation’s entrance into World War I, emphasis was placed by the police on violations of federal offenses such as "failure to register as a German Alien enemy," seditious utterances," and "suspicion of being an alien enemy." A "War Squad" was fielded and any communist activity, real or suspected, was regularly investigated. Striking workers were labeled as "Reds" and were warned they were subject to arrest for subversion.
Determined to resist any potential armed invasion by the Kaiser’s troops, officers were organized into a "Home Guard," armed and made ready to assist the Army and Navy. The Department lost 15 percent of its sworn personnel to the armed forces. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, almost half of a million Americans were fatally stricken. Among them were many LAPD officers.
A "Flying Squad" also came into being in 1918. It was equipped with two "high powered" automobiles operated by detectives after midnight to handle violent crimes commonly occurring during early morning hours. Violent crime obviously had no time clock. In the six-month period between October 1918 and March 1919, 17 police officers, two percent of all sworn personnel, lost their lives in the line of duty.
Starting in 1920 and for the better part of the next 20 years, varying levels of corruption tainted local government and the Department. This was the era of prohibition and the Depression. Known as a wide-open town, Los Angeles attracted the worst elements produced by the times. Crooked politicians, racketeers, bootleggers, and judges enjoyed immunity to arrest. The City was all but totally in the hands of bosses who controlled elected officials, dictating police appointments and promotions while garnering huge sums from booze, gambling, and vice. During one 15-month period, more than 100 of the Department’s 1,200 officers were dismissed on one or another charge of misconduct. Accompanying these conditions were widespread labor unrest and protests from revolutionary activists.
This is not to imply that progress had been stalled in the Police Department. A merit system was implemented in 1920, followed in 1922 by salary increases and the appointment of the first Deputy Chief and Inspector of Detectives. The City’s population by now neared one million and its territory had expanded to 363 square miles.
Between 1919 and 1923, eight Chiefs came and departed, each faced with conditions he was virtually powerless to correct, with one exception. August Vollmer, Chief of the Berkeley, California Police Department, agreed to serve for one year. The likelihood exists that he did not know that the bosses supported his selection in their efforts to silence the crusading news media.
In any event, Vollmer, a dedicated reformer and administrator, completely reorganized the Department. He improved working conditions, established new standards of professionalism, and laid the groundwork for what since has become the Department’s Scientific Investigation Division. He also formed a 300-man "Crime Crushers Division," forerunner of today’s Metropolitan Division, to focus personnel resources on high crime areas. It was Vollmer who made the often-quoted statement: "There is no higher calling than that of a policeman. I would rather be a policeman than President." But when his year was up, politics again took over and remained a dominating influence until Fletcher Bowron became Mayor in 1938 and a series of major reforms were instituted.