The Swivel Chair

When I heard earlier last month that Mayor Eric Garcetti fulfilled one of his most important duties by selecting Michel Moore, a 36-year veteran, to be the next chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, it reminded me of a time in LAPD’s history when the transition was not nearly as tidy. Since 1969, nearly a half-century, LAPD has had only six chiefs of police. This is quite an accomplishment, especially when compared to one six-year span during the 1920s, when LAPD went through eight chiefs in bewildering succession. To better understand where the department is now, and the level of professionalism having been accomplished, one must look at what was overcome to make that steep transition to today.

During the 1920s, LAPD officers were more concerned with keeping their jobs than chasing down vice offenders.

America in the 1920s was a land of prosperity. The new heroes were movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin and aviators like Charles Lindberg. Washing machines were in, while the automobile provided a new sense of freedom. Farmers put away the plow and moved to the city. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled and across the country, Americans were living it up.

But getting in the way of the fun and hoopla of the Roaring 20s came two national struggles that would shape not only the United States, but also LAPD’s destiny for the next two decades. One was the prohibition of alcohol, which made criminals of almost the entire population, and the second was the great economic depression of the 1930s. While the police department has suffered through seemingly endless decades of corruption and political meddling, for the next 20 years, both continuing hindrances pushed LAPD into the nadir of its existence.

The quick succession of chiefs began with Lyle Pendegast who did not come from within the police department but was a deputy city prosecutor. As the new chief was quick to point out, he had been executive secretary to four chiefs during the “old days” between 1905 and 1910. He knew first-hand what to expect when pinning on the chief’s badge. Pendegast had a vision for the LAPD. He hoped to decentralize the force, double the number of patrolmen and install a merit system to better rate each officer’s performance. He also asked the city council to pay for the cost of new uniforms. The tawdry city council refused his request because the city could not afford it.

With the election of George Cryer as the new mayor in 1920, there was going to be change within LAPD. It was a known fact in city government that the real power behind the police force was with the man with the smug smile sitting in the nicest office in city hall. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, “The mayor appoints the police commission: the police commission appoints the chief of police. Everybody who knows anything about municipal affairs knows that the mayor is the real head of the police department and that his word is the law.” And with the election of Cryer, the new mayor brought with him a new chief of police. Although he tried to improve the department, Pendegast, having served for just eight months, was never allowed an honest opportunity, before he was shown the door.

Mayor Cryer appointed Detective Sergeant Charles A. Jones to command the police department. At the time, it was considered solid political sense. Although Jones had 20 years on the job, his low rank was a plus. In these corrupt days, the higher the rank the greater the chance of political preferment. Low rank meant the man owed no one—but to the mayor who appointed him.

Jones was ordered to close-down vice in the city—something that each previous chief had been charged with for decades. When the leader of the Morals Efficiency League described the disgraceful vice conditions on North Spring Street that included open gambling and where women and liquor were abundant—the newspapers ran with it. In stories dominating the front page, it was bluntly pointed out that gamblers had arranged the transfer of the Central Division police commander because he actively enforced the anti-vice statutes. The captain was replaced with the vice lords hand-picked man and the mayor ordered it done.

When accused of not shutting down vice in the city, Chief Jones aired it out: “No one can run the Los Angeles Police Department. There are too many meddlesome so-called reformers and others who interfere. The job isn’t worth the grief that attends to it.” After just six fleeting months, the former detective turned chief was out.

As he prepared to announce his next chief of police, Mayor Cryer acknowledged the police department has been a “storm center for many years…one police regime after another has crumbled and fallen.” His next choice would only reinforce his proclamation. The next man was not an “insider” or an “outsider,” but a retired army colonel with absolutely no law enforcement experience. But what he lacked in knowhow and political savvy, the battle-hardened veteran more than made up with his vigorous, forceful demeanor—he was in charge and no one close to him would dare question that. As Chief James W. Everington took office he proclaimed his penchant for vigorous, forceful command. He pointed out he had no strings attached, no axe to grind and only one order: “succeed.”

Everington immediate abolished courtesy cards and honorary police badges which citizens flashed for any encounter with a police officer. No more fixing of tickets, which by many accounts, occurred in 50 percent of all traffic tickets. The chief didn’t win over many in the department when he described new recruits as “brainless” and remarked that good men apparently retired early while the stupid ones remained on the force.

Chief Everington quickly announced his intention to close all lotteries, speakeasies, brothels and casinos even if they were in splashy country clubs. When he ordered the elimination of commercial vice and his three top commanders asserted that it could not be done, he fired them. The subsequent police commission hearings soon turned into an examination of vice in Los Angeles. Accusations flew through the air like a flock of birds. Certain judges were labeled corrupt and accused of protecting a ring of attorneys that defended prostitutes. Everington was accused of mishandling of the department allowing criminals free reign.

During testimony, one senior LAPD captain took the stand and exposed the inner workings of the 1920s police force. “A policeman must play policy….I do myself. If I didn’t I would have to look for another job.” The captain further pointed out that the department was completely disorganized. The working cop’s main concern was keeping his job. Vice he said, could never be cleaned up because the powers that controlled it were too powerful. “Bookmakers told me if I didn’t quit arresting them I would be transferred.” The captain was transferred the next day and was never given a reason by his boss.

Chief Everington could not fathom how he was being used and not allowed to do his job. The press boldly stated that Everington was inept and was grossly mishandling the department. Like the fighting soldier he once was, the colonel, now chief of police, fired back. He labeled the mayor and police commissioners as “spineless jelly fish…weak-kneed creatures of expediency.” Even some of his supporters were not exempt from his wrath. He referred to them as “the soft heads and saps who have showered me with resolutions….I have told them all to go to hell!”

After just four months in office, Chief Everington was fired. His parting words, not much different than those before him declared, “I haven’t run this department since I was appointed; an honest man can’t do that.”

Having learned nothing from earlier experiences just a year and half earlier, Mayor Cryer pushed through another Detective, this time Louis Oaks, 40 years of age from Missouri. Only on the job for 12 years, his biggest accomplishment was his work in solving a high-profile kidnapping case. His greatest value from the politician’s point of view was that Oaks was just a good ole flatfoot with no agenda—a man they mistakenly assumed would take orders from city hall.

When George Cryer was elected mayor in 1921, insiders attributed his victory to one man, Kent Kane Parrot. An attorney and leading underworld figure, Parrot was considered the “boss” of municipal politics in Los Angeles. Consequently, the mayor earned the nickname as “Parrot’s Puppet.”

With his fingers holding the strings of every branch of the city, legal and otherwise, Parrot soon tightened his control over the police department. The boss bribed vice supervisors and assigned a “bagman” to handle the payoffs. It was understood that Kent Parrot’s word was law, because he owned the law.

Chief Oaks was often called to Parrot’s fancy digs at the new Biltmore Hotel. The topic of conversation was usually to tell Oaks on how to run the department and how selective transfers should be made. Parrot wanted his cronies where they could do the most good for his financial well-being. The proud chief refused Parrot by exclaiming “Neither you nor anyone else is going to use the police department for political purposes.” This was only a minor hindrance for Parrot as he simply went around the chief to his susceptible subordinates.

To further ensure his orders were being adhered to, Parrot had the mayor assign his secretary, H. H. Kinney to the office of the chief. Although he fought each directive, Oaks was forced to make transfers. Heading the list was the captain of Central vice. Kinney confirmed who was in charge and eerily presaged in third person: “No one had better question Kinney’s honesty. When they do, Kinney will strike back, and when he strikes, he will strike first.”

When Chief Oaks fired the captain of Central Division, a handpicked man of Parrot’s, all hell broke loose. With determined documentation, Oaks was prepared for the police commission hearing. But just one day prior to his testimony, Chief Oaks was unceremoniously fired by the mayor. There was no change at Central and all charges were summarily dismissed against the captain.

The Los Angeles Times who was firmly behind most of the men who led the department blamed everything on the “swivel chair” located behind the large oak desk in the chief’s office:

Being of the swivel variety, this seat revolves. The speed of rotation, according to the laws of science, is dependent upon the swill of the manipulator. However, there’s something uncanny in the mechanism of that piece of official furniture. Five times within the past three years it has attained a velocity so high that the occupant thereof has been hurled out of the room and the job.

The swivel chair in question was in constant rotation until 1950, when Chief William H. Parker took command and destroyed everything that oak chair stood for. Today, newly appointed Chief Moore can look back and thank his forebearers for the sacrifices they made into making today’s LAPD a world-wide leader in law enforcement.

*Excerpt from my next book coming out in 2019: Gangsters & Cops: Prohibition, Corruption, and LAPD’s Scandalous Coming of Age

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