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John W. Powers, 90; Legendary Officer in LAPD for 31 Years

Obituaries

December 09, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

They called him Two-Gun Johnny. The Patton of the LAPD. A real cop's cop.

It says so in Joseph Wambaugh's best-seller "The Onion Field." He was that well known.

John William Powers, the third-generation street cop who spent 31 years with the Los Angeles Police Department in the rough-and-tumble era from 1940 to 1971, has died. He was 90.

Powers died Nov. 15 of cancer at his home in the little town of Cool, Calif., not far from Sacramento.

He got the first nickname because of his bravado and derring-do in his first year on the force.

On Jan. 20, 1941, he was shot by a 15-year-old robber. Powers, sure he was a goner, pulled out a second gun and killed his assailant.

For 20 years, he made it a habit to carry two guns. Everywhere. Only in 1961 when he made the rank of inspector did he reduce his arsenal to a single snub-nosed .38. And he carried a .45 in his retirement, even to his daughters' weddings.

Powers was called the Patton of the force, and a cop's cop, as Wambaugh explained in his nonfiction book about the murder of LAPD Officer Ian Campbell, because:

"He was tall, like the general, with white wavy hair and eyebrows like crow's wings. And Inspector Powers had the Patton charisma with the line policemen, would talk their language at roll calls, would brief stakeout squads and robbery teams in regard to shooting. A good, clean bandit-killing pleased him as it does most policemen. He was known as a cop's cop."

He was in Wambaugh's book about the 1963 kidnapping of Campbell and Officer Karl Hettinger and Campbell's murder in an onion field near Bakersfield because of what he advised street cops to do afterward.

Controversial Memo

Powers, who went to Bakersfield the night of the killing to shepherd the investigation, wrote what came to be called "the Hettinger Memorandum," which proved pretty controversial in the ranks.

Officially, the edict was titled "Patrol Bureau Memorandum Number 11" and the subtitle or subject matter was "Rollcall Training -- Officer's Survival."

What it said was never surrender or turn over your gun to "a depraved criminal" as the two officers had done on a Hollywood side street; try to distract the gunman to regain control of the situation, take a hit if necessary, and always remember "if shot, all wounds are not fatal."

The language, which was written in the Cold War era, was tough and typical Powers:

"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. The manner of a man's living and dying is of paramount importance. Although some moderns have attempted to sap the strength and ideals of this nation by slogans such as 'I'd rather be red than dead,' there are situations more intolerable than death."

Many rank and file officers believed that the memo strongly implied that Campbell could have prevented his own death and branded both Campbell and Hettinger cowards.

Hettinger, who was greatly troubled by the experience as he testified through trial after trial that finally convicted and imprisoned two men, left the force under a shoplifting cloud in 1966.

But Powers did write from experience. Wounded in his one kill, he wounded four other suspects in gun battles when he was on the streets.

64 Commendations

In addition to working the Campbell murder case, he was a commander during the 1965 Watts riots and helped lead the investigation of the Charles Manson family murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969.

As he rose to lieutenant, captain in charge of Venice detective and juvenile bureaus, internal affairs and Hollywood patrol divisions, he earned 64 commendations.

The last was for capturing kidnappers of a banker's son shortly before his retirement on June 30, 1971, as commander in charge of robbery-homicide.

He received only one reprimand, and he issued it to himself -- for driving a police car involved in a minor accident when he was captain of internal affairs in 1959. His hobby was shooting -- marksmanship.

And Powers was an experienced writer. His memos might have been harsh but were always clear.

He had written for "Dragnet" and in retirement penned his own -- unpublished -- 1,600 page autobiography, "Officer Survival."

Family Trade

Powers was born and reared in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where his father was a cop for 36 years. His grandfather was a policeman for 21 years in nearby Newburgh, N.Y.

(Carrying on the family line, Powers' grandson, Robert Harwood, is an officer with the San Francisco Police Department.)

He moved to Los Angeles in 1939 and waited out the one-year residency requirement to join the LAPD by working as bodyguard for Hollywood mogul Jack Warner.

Powers and his wife relocated to Cool four years ago to be closer to their daughters. He dazzled El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker by signing up for his Sheriff's Team of Active Retirees. Powers also joined the Sacramento Area Blue Line Assn., a group of former LAPD officers living near the state capital.

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Grace; two daughters, Kathryn Powers and Carol Harwood of Cool, and one grandson.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the William H. Parker Foundation's Canine Equipment Fund, 1880 N. Academy Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90012.

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