1911 LAPD: A Leader in Technology … Well, Sort Of

In 1911, the Los Angeles Times warned “Lawbreakers Beware” as the Los Angeles Police Department was at again. You see, LAPD loves technology—whatever it takes to get one-up on the bad guys. Seemingly always outnumbered, the department of 1911 had to be inventive; so as they would throughout their history, its leaders instinctively turned to technology.

An LAPD officer trying out the "Power Skates."

An LAPD officer trying out the “Power Skates.”

With the benefit of cutting-edge devices, the modern LAPD patrolled the entire city in the early 20th century using automobiles and motorcycles, leaving the old, dependable foot beat cop in the dust. The new machinery only seemed to emphasize the slowness of patrolmen. But the street-smart cop was not about to fade away like his four-legged friends.

So when a local citizen came to then Chief Charles Sebastian (1911-1915) with an invention to literally propel the foot beat cop as fast as those in the new automobile, the chief quickly ordered a field trial of what Mr. Herbert Chamberlin termed his “Power Skates.” According to his design, these specially created skates would allow properly equipped foot beat officers to “speed past” their motorized colleagues. There were two types of these skates: One had two wheels and was a “high-speed” design that would allow the cop to reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour; the other had four wheels for each skate and was for regular, slower foot beat duty. The skates were propelled by the weight of the officer stepping forward as if walking; a worm gear “commuting the vertical to circular motion” drove the officer forward—or so it was promised.

As history would have it, the “Power Skates” were not approved, possibly saving hundreds of days of lost time from injuries—as the one big drawback of the design was clear: no brakes!

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What’s In a Picture: The Entire Los Angeles Police Department 1904

This particular photograph of the entire Los Angeles Police Department, taken circa 1904, has continually been mistakenly marked as being snapped in 1890. To photo historians, this 14-year error is important to correct. The image was taken at the entry to the newly constructed Los Angeles County Courthouse at Broadway and Temple Street. The building was completed 1891.

The entire Los Angeles Police Department in 1904

The entire Los Angeles Police Department in 1904

If one was to accept the date of 1890, then I would argue, where is Chief John Glass (1889-1899), who was never absent from any LAPD group photograph during his tenure. No one in the photograph has the stars of the chief of police displayed on their uniform. They all wear the series two badge that was worn from 1890 to 1909.

Those present for this official portrait of the LAPD lends itself to identifying the year of the image. Standing at attention, with his trademark long, drooping mustache, is Walter Auble (front row on left), who was chief of police from 1905 to 1906—a year after this photo was taken. The chief of police in 1904 was William Hammell. Why he would not be present for this significant image is not known, but he is nowhere to be found.
The two ladies present give substance to the date of 1904. The diminutive Lucy Gray and her daughter Aletha Gilbert (1902-1929) are given the prominent position of being framed by Auble and the Detective Bureau. Matron Gray died in March of 1904, eliminating the date of 1905 when Auble was chief.

Chief Walter Auble would serve one year as chief and would later be gunned down by a burglary suspect. Lucy Gray died of pneumonia shortly after this photo was taken. Aletha Gilbert became LA’s first “City Mother” and served the LAPD until her retirement in 1929. The iconic Los Angeles County Courthouse was torn down in 1932.