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PERSPECTIVE ON THE LAPD : A Simple Time, in Black and White : In the '50s, racism was an enforcement tool passed down from a chief who was god to a legion of Fuhrmans.

October 12, 1995|GLENN SOUZA | Glenn Souza retired from the LAPD in 1984 as a senior detective in the Detective Headquarters Division. and

Back in the late Middle Ages when I came on the job (1959), the Los Angeles Police Department was completely segregated and by any definition extremely racist. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President and Chief William H. Parker was god. Daryl Gates was a sergeant in the chief's office and Tom Bradley was a lieutenant out in the Wilshire Division.

In the old University Division (now Southwest), the police were a benevolent paternalistic presence feared by all. The African American officers, known as Negroes, were always assigned together, and if one partner was off, the other would work the desk or take the day off, too. The Negro teams were respected by the white officers but were utilized in patronizing ways. The most common radio call was for a family dispute, and "see the woman, unknown trouble," was the most feared summons. Officers were required to be family relations counselors in a culture as foreign to most of us as an enclave of Martians.

We were a mercenary army unofficially empowered to arrest anyone at any time for any cause. The most common was drunkenness or drinking in public view, but more exotic charges could always be approved by the detectives on probable cause. At every roll call, officers were required to record in their notebooks a string of recent robbery or burglary reports in which suspects were usually described as male Negroes, 25 to 30 years old, average height and weight, black hair and brown eyes. Sometimes the descriptions were refined to include porkpie hats or processed hair, but still, any report could describe half of the men in the division's area.

Heroin addiction was a big problem in the division's area and officers were under orders to book any "hype" (addict) that they saw. Fresh needle tracks meant an instant felony arrest and made for nice month-end recaps. Another easy felony arrest was a marijuana cigarette, and many careless smokers with a roach in plain view spent the night in the division jail. The night watch jailer was the vice principal of Manual Arts High School in the daytime, and he gave many youths a double dose of paternalistic oppression.

The common complaint was that we were required to be social workers and deal with problems such as drug use and "immoral" sexual activity. Some of the things that people went to jail for and suffered at the hands of the police are now legal and accepted. It was illegal to masquerade as the opposite sex. It was also illegal for persons of the same sex to dance with one another.

The streetwalkers around Adams and Western were all black females--no one saw a transvestite in those days, much less a transsexual. The rules were pretty strict and officers had to hear a solicitation to make an arrest, but there were some old Municipal Code ordinances that could be used, ancient and shaky as they might be. "Vagrancy with intent to commit prostitution, vagrancy with intent to commit lewd acts" and the ever-popular "resorting for purposes of prostitution" (when two people not married to each other meet for sex) were commonly cited misdemeanors. Oral copulation was a felony and woe to the prostitute and customer caught in the act. The police often caused the arrest of people who were not involved in prostitution but simply not married to one another.

Black people could not venture north of Beverly or much west of La Brea after dark without a strongly documented purpose. In Hollywood Division, a Negro was an automatic "shake" or field interview with the resultant warrant check or match-up to some vague crime report. A favored location for these shakes was the call box at Outpost Canyon and Mulholland Drive. If there was absolutely no way to arrest the suspect, he was told to start walking.

The turning point in these racist traditions came in 1960. During his presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy promised equality for Negroes. The Democratic National Convention was held in the new Sports Arena next to the Coliseum in the heart of University Division. Kennedy was brought in every day in a police-escorted caravan, red lights and sirens. The rumors were that he had promised to make Chief Parker the head of the FBI or some other federal office if elected.

The department tried to integrate but it was a battle. White officers would walk up to the lieutenant's desk and throw down their badges rather than work with a Negro. These bluffs were almost always reconciled with quiet reason, but no adamant refusal was challenged--there weren't that many black officers to be paired with anyway.

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