In researching LAPD history since the 1980s, I have interviewed over 50 cops. From African American patrolmen from the 1920s to every chief of police since Ed Davis. From the Gangster Squad to a reserve female officer that flew fixed wing aircraft for LAPD in the 1930s. But of all these interviews, the one with John “Two Gun” Powers is one I shall never forget. He was the epitome of what a police officer should be. The young Powers had wanted to be a police officer for as long as he could remember. His ambition came from the cop genes flowing through his body. His father served 36 years as a policeman, and his grandfather 21 years before him. Throughout his own 31-year career, Powers was a police professional who set high standards for himself and those around him. He understood the war against the criminal element:
The police are engaged in a hot war. There are no truces, and there is no hope of an armistice. The enemy abides by no rules of civilized warfare. The individual officer, when taking his oath of office, enters a sacred trust to protect his community to the best of his ability, laying down his life if necessary. All men return to dust.
Powers made sure it would be the bad guy who laid down his life. During his renowned career, he received 64 commendations and only one reprimand, which he issued to himself for crashing a police car. He was a hard-nosed street cop who made it to staff rank.
But it was a shooting that has gone down in LAPD lore that sticks with me. John “Two Gun” Powers from the Shields police academy class of 1940 was involved in a bloody shootout that earned him the nickname of “Two Gun.” The shooting took place in 1941, long before officers routinely carried a backup gun for safety. Although the story has been retold by many officers through the years, Powers himself explained to this author the confrontation in detail. It all began when the officer and his partner confronted what they thought were two purse snatch suspects:
So we see these two suspects on the sidewalk, and my partner gets out of the car and grabs each one by the shoulder and pulls one down and then falls on top of him. The other guy kind of stumbles out in the street. Meanwhile, I got out of the car and try to head off the suspect who went into the street, but he stopped and reached in his waistband and came out with a .45 automatic. When something like this happens to you, the adrenaline really gets going, and I think a lot faster. When that gun came out I could identify it as a .45 and it went through my mind, I wonder what the hell these people have been up to.
He fired that .45 and I didn’t even think, my reflexes just took over, and I drew my gun…and I emptied it at the suspect with the .45. He went down—he went down hard— and the .45 skidded out of his hand. I had hit him twice, so he was down and out. So I take a deep breath and I hear shots on the other side of the car….
I see Hart is shot in the leg, and the other suspect breaks loose and goes and runs into the driveway. He sees me and stops. He points his gun at me and fires four times. This is 10 o’clock at night with just street lights on—[the shot] looks like a blow torch. The bullet hit me on the side and went through and around and stopped on my spine. I thought, my God, this guy gut shot me, I thought, I got hit in the stomach and the bullet went out the back because it was like I got hit hard, and it knocked me to the right. I thought I could die, but it only took about a split second and I thought, if I am going to die, I will take this son-of-a-bitch with me.
So I put the empty gun in my left hand and I reached in my other holster and did a backhand draw and came out with my second gun. I thought, this guy is going to be surprised when he sees me come out with a second gun. It also went through my mind on the first suspect, I shot too fast and I shot too high, which is what you do when you fire too fast, you shoot high. So this time I really took my time. I firmed up my grip and I cocked the gun and took my time squeezing it off. I hit the suspect right above his heart, a fatal wound. He went down on his knees but hung on to the gun so I emptied my gun, five shots, and I fired those doubled action. I hit him two more times. He had 10 bullet holes, entry and exit in him. He was dead on arrival.
Like many officers from the Shields, Powers would later use his expertise and experience to teach young recruits what life on the streets was all about. The first thing rookies noted when Powers entered the classroom were the two enormous guns tucked under both arms. His presence demanded attention. When Two Gun Powers talked, people listened and learned. Powers emphasized the importance of training. He stressed the importance of reacting automatically to a life-challenging threat. He added, if you train extremely hard for the worst possible scenario, your body will respond properly.
Thank you, John Powers for everything you have done for the Los Angeles Police Department. May your memory never fade from the pages of our history.