LA Noir: Dragnet

John Buntin, author of L.A. Noir, tells us the not-so-glamorous history of the LAPD.


 Mob City Joe


The Los Angeles Police Department (LADP) was founded in 1869, with a paid force of six men. Forget any image of Sir Robert Peel’s ‘bobbies’. For the first four decades of its existence, the LAPD was ineffective at best and criminal at worst. Far from reducing the city’s startling levels of violence, the police at times contributed to it, as on the memorable occasion when the city marshal (also the city dogcatcher and tax collector) got into a shootout with one of his own officers at the corner of Temple and Main after a dispute over who should receive the reward for capturing and returning a prostitute who had escaped from one of the city’s Chinese tongs.

‘While there are undoubtedly good men upon the police force, the body as a whole is not a matter for our citizens to be proud of,’ sighed the Los Angeles Herald in 1900. ‘It is perfectly obvious to all that the policemen have not been selected for their honesty or fitness, but through political favor and for political purposes . . . [Many officers] are over age, some under size, others unfit for duty; some do not pay their just debts, others figure prominently in divorce cases, and some receive money from sporting women for the privilege of soliciting upon the streets.’

In 1902, the LAPD’s woes were greatly exacerbated by two ministers’ ‘discovery’ of Los Angeles’ booming red light district. The clergymen immediately set out to publicise the horrors of this ‘market for human flesh’ with a series of vivid pamphlets and books (which sold very well). Inflamed churchmen descended on ‘hell’s half-acre’ to implore its prostitutes and saloonkeepers to renounce their evil ways. When that failed, they turned to the ballot, amending the city charter so as to completely outlaw all forms of prostitution, gambling and vice within Los Angeles city limits. Henceforth, Los Angeles was ‘closed’ – at least in theory.

The decision to prohibit vice put the LAPD in a difficult if not impossible situation. Faced with the threat of extinction, saloonkeepers, brewery owners, brothel operators and gambling kingpins threw themselves into politics, donating lavishly to candidates for sheriff, district attorney, superior court judge, city council and mayor.

Their largesse was also available to policemen, particularly to members of the Chinatown and the Metropolitan ‘purity’ squads willing to tip them off when the pressure to mount a raid became irresistible. As a result, officers on the front lines of the effort to police the underworld often faced a stark choice: break the law and accept bribes from the saloonkeepers, madams and gaming house operators who were bankrolling the politicians, or refuse bribes, enforce the law and risk being fired or assigned to direct traffic on the graveyard shift down at the port of San Pedro.

In 1914 the United States’ entry into the First World War flooded Los Angeles with sailors and soldiers – two groups not known for their restraint.

Then came Prohibition, which created a lucrative black market in booze run by a group of politicians and vice lords known simply as ‘the Combination’. The LAPD served as its enforcer, displaying notable zeal in its operations against criminals not connected to the Combination that contrasted strongly with its tentative and half-hearted efforts against those with connections. One officer who refused to play this game was Bill Parker.

Mob City introduces Bill Parker with a reference to a famous incident that occurred in 1927, soon after Parker had joined the force. According to department lore, Parker had rescued two hostages from a shotgun-wielding gunman virtually single-handedly, in much the same fashion shown in the show.

Mob City also captures the aura of incorrigibility that surrounded the young Bill Parker – ‘Bill the boy scout’, they called him. But by the year 1947, the year the show is set, Bill Parker has become a very different person. And knowing more about this Bill Parker adds depth and drama to the experience of watching the show.

Bill Parker is no longer an innocent. Rather, he has become a true believer in original sin. He has also become a skilled inquisitor, suspicious of everyone, paranoid when it comes to vice.

During the Second World War, this Bill Parker served in the US Army’s civil affairs division. His job was to help reorganise German police departments after the war. His speciality: de-Nazification. After the war, Parker would bring those skills back to the LAPD. Uncovering secrets was Bill Parker’s forte. All of which is perhaps a very indirect way of saying this: Detective Joe Teague is playing a very dangerous game.

John Buntin is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, published by Orion. It is the inspiration for the new TV series Mob City, airing on Fox every Friday at 10pm.