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Taking on the underworld

The LAPD formed the covert group in 1946 to keep East Coast Mafia out of L.A. Its 'anything goes' approach endured through the 1950s in an era when justice was found far from the courthouse.

October 26, 2008|Paul Lieberman

Sgt. Willie Burns had a Tommy gun on the bench in front of him when his 18 handpicked candidates arrived at the 77th Street station on the edge of Watts. It was a cool evening in November 1946, and the men came in topcoats and hats. Burns wore his low, almost over his eyes, like the bad guys.

Years later, he told a grand jury: "My primary duties were to keep down these gangster killings and try to keep some of these rough guys under control." But he hadn't given his fellow LAPD cops any hint of why they'd been summoned that night. Now he laid it out.

If they joined the Gangster Squad, their targets would be the likes of Bugsy Siegel, the playboy refugee from New York's Murder Inc., and Jack Dragna, the Sicilian banana importer who quietly lorded over the city's rackets.

Then there was Mickey Cohen, the dapper former prizefighter who had come to town as Bugsy's muscle but soon had his own cafe on North La Brea and a "paint store" nearby with three phones to take bets. That's where he'd shot a produce broker whose family ran competing bookie joints. Mickey said the man came at him with a .45, the one found beside the body, and there were no witnesses to contradict his story. "It was me or him," Mickey said. "I let him have it."

There had been three more mob rub-outs around L.A. since then, including the shotgunning of two Chicago men outside a Hollywood apartment. That one generated a "Gangsters in Gambling War" headline that was a prime reason Police Chief C.B. Horrall wanted those 18 cops to see what a Thompson submachine gun looked like.

"You'll be working with these," Burns told them.

The deal was: If they signed on, they'd continue to be listed on the rosters of their old stations. They'd have no office, only two unmarked cars. They'd almost never make arrests. They'd simply gather "intelligence" and be available for other chores. In effect, they would not exist.

Burns gave them a week to ponder advice from an old lieutenant at the 77th, who said an assignment like that could get you in good with the chief. "Or you could end up down in San Pedro, walking a beat in a fog."

After the week, only seven came back, making a squad of eight, counting Burns.

"We did a lot of things that we'd get indicted for today," said Sgt. Jack O'Mara.


On the job a decade before J. Edgar Hoover's FBI acknowledged the existence of the Mafia, they took an anything-goes approach to making life hell for Mickey Cohen and driving other such characters from the Southern California sunshine.

They used a look-alike Pac Bell truck to plant bugs, to hell with warrants. They did secret favors for Jack Webb, who glorified the LAPD with his "Dragnet" TV show. They stole evidence from mobsters and neutralized a pesky newspaper columnist. And Jack O'Mara personally set a trap for the showboating Mickey, to prove he was a killer.

There were close calls -- grand jury investigations, lawsuits and a skeptical chief or two -- but they endured through the 1950s. That's when one of their cases changed the ground rules for policing in California and when one of their own -- Jerry Wooters, the most reckless of them all -- grew far too friendly with L.A.'s homegrown hoodlum, Jack "the Enforcer" Whalen.

But when "the Enforcer" made the mistake of confronting Mickey and his crew at a hangout in the Valley, a bullet between the eyes signaled that the Gangster Squad's time was over, and so was a defining era in the city's history.

Noir L.A. was a time and place where truth was not found in the sunlight, and justice not found in marble courthouses, and where not a single gangland killing was solved, not one, for half a century. Not on paper, anyway.


Their first assignment: the visitors shaking down Hollywood restaurants and nightclubs. "Hoodlum types from Rhode Island," in O'Mara's words, "what we called 'dandruff.' "

The fear of evil outsiders had been a refrain in L.A. before any of these cops were born. You could go back to 1891, when this was a community of 70,000 with a police force of 75, and hear Chief John Glass warn of "Eastern crooks" seeking warm weather and easy pickings. After the turn of the century, the invaders were upgraded to "Eastern gangsters," and in 1927 Det. Ed "Roughhouse" Brown became a local legend by escorting Al Capone to the train when the notorious mobster was discovered in a downtown hotel. "I thought you folks liked tourists," Capone said before returning to Chicago.

Now a new group of "tourists" was demanding 25% of the take at landmarks such as the Mocambo and Brown Derby, and the club owners did not want to go to court, worried what might happen to their families. A state crime report would warn anew of an "Invasion of Undesirables." "What are you gonna do?" O'Mara asked.

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