Police Brutality Pt. I
On Wednesday evening, September 19, 1923 about 11 pm, James H. (Harry) Bate was tired. It had been a long day. After working a full shift as Assistant Head Janitor for the Los Angeles County Courthouse and Hall of Records buildings, he’d attended a meeting of his lodge at the Odd Fellows Hall on Wall Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets, where he was secretary, then stopped in at his church, the Second Baptist Church at 740 Maple Avenue, where he served as treasurer. Now, lugging records from both institutions in a pair of suitcases, the 64-year-old walked north the half-block to the corner of Seventh and Maple where he would catch a streetcar home (1).
Suddenly a pair of burly men appeared out of the darkness. “What the hell are you doing here?” one of them barked and demanded to know what was in the cases.
Bate was frightened. This was a high crime area. He had about $100 of church money on him. He thought the men were possibly intending to rob him, especially when they grabbed Bate by his arms and began roughing him up. Two or three other men joined the fray.
“Help! Help! Police!” Bate called out.
A crowd from the church began to gather and saw the men beating Bate. One of the assailants hit Bate with a blackjack. A patrol wagon came, and the men hauled the now-bleeding Bate and the suitcases into it and sped off. It was only then that Bate realized the police would not be coming to help him. These men, his attackers, were the police. They were members of Chief Vollmer’s new police division known as the “Crime Crushers.”
August Vollmer had been appointed chief on August 1, an outsider brought in from the City of Berkeley to replace Chief Louis D. Oaks, who displeased Mayor Cryer’s right-hand man Kent Kane Parrot and the LA underworld by actually trying to clean up corruption (2).
Three weeks into the job, Vollmer announced the creation of the Crime Crushers, a secret division made up of some 300 plain-clothes officers to be led by Acting Captain Henry J. Toomey, assisted by police Lieutenant James Patrick Lyons. A highly mobile force, its mission was to respond swiftly in the event of a hold-up or other major incident. In in their down time would go after “vagrants, gambling houses and other vice places, bootleggers and the like.”
On August 25, 1923, only days after Vollmer broadcast the news of their existence, the Crime Crushers claimed what the LA Times called their first “victory.” A member of the squad shot and “probably mortally wounded” a 19 -year-old parolee, Mervin H. Smith. A beat cop had arrest Smith at Fifth and Hill on suspicion of attempted auto theft. When the officer went to a police call box to request a patrol wagon, Smith fled, running West on Fifth past Pershing Square Park to the corner of Olive. Unfortunately for him, he ran into a Crime Crusher, who fired three bullets into Smith amid a throng of theatergoers (3).
Over the next month, Chief Vollmer proudly recited the squad’s incredible results to the Times. September 7: 48 arrests in one night! Most were minor offences: 29 for vagrancy, 15 for intoxication. September 18: 76 arrests! 26 for vagrancy, 39 for intoxication.
While such arrests bolstered the department’s statistics, these were hardly the Crimes of the Century (4). While Harry Bate was getting harassed and beaten up at the corner of Maple and Seventh, two blocks away crime boss Charles Crawford’s Maple Bar saloon, brothel and gambling joint was going full blast, as were the vice operations run by Farmer Page, Zeke Caress, Tutor Scherer and ex-LAPD detective Guy McAfee. Harry Bate’s only “crime” was, apparently, walking while black. Bate later testified that the officers did not show their badges or identify themselves as police when they accosted him. The officers insisted that they had. They claimed Bate had resisted arrest and tried to get away.
When Bate arrived with the Crime Crushers at the LAPD’s Old Central station at First and Hill that Wednesday night, his rough treatment at their hands accelerated. As the LA Evening Express later wrote on March 5, 1929, the officers “kicked him and punched him and choked him as they dragged the almost unconscious man down the alley into the booking office.”
In the booking office, the Evening Express continued, “they threw him on the floor. They took his money and the money of the church- $100- away. They took his two suitcases. They took his glasses.” Eventually, a “high ranking officer” came in and recognized Bate, a familiar figure around the Courthouse area. And, because even in 1923 walking while black was not an actual crime, a few minutes later Bate was “invited” to go home and forget all about it.
The elderly man spent several days in bed recovering from his injuries. With bills to pay, he dragged himself back to work at the county building, where he’d been employed since 1910. But he never felt strong again. His boss, Head Janitor Lewis G. Robinson, would later testify that after the beating, Bate could only work a few hours a day.
On September 29, 1923, the County Board of Supervisors sent a resolution to Chief Vollmer calling on him to “investigate and properly punish” the participants:
“When one of our oldest and respected employees, James Henry Bate, who is honest and moral and has given the county the best of service for many years, was on the 19th of September, as he was going peacefully to the streetcar on his way home about 11 o’clock at night, attacked and brutally beaten by 3 or 4 men in civilian clothes carrying police badges.”
Bate’s lawyer, John W. Kemp also made a complaint to the Police Commission and requested the five officers involved should be removed. Bate requested to have representation with him at the hearing on the matter, but the Commission refused, arguing that police officers themselves did not have lawyers with them at such proceedings so why should Bate? Bate declined to attend without Kemp. At the hearing on October 9, 1923, Chief Vollmer spoke up for the opposition. stating that the officers had used no more force than necessary. They thought Bate was carrying stolen goods, Vollmer said, and he had refused to divulge the contents. Without Bate’s testimony, there was no opposing view presented. Therefore, the Commission dismissed the charges and ruled the matter closed.
In December, another man came forward to report William Jolin had assaulted him a photography studio at 317 Clay Street. Lt. Toomey, commander of the Crime Crushers, recommended that, given all the complaints against Jolin, that he be transferred from the squad, but it is unclear whether this was acted on.
On December 23, 1923, Bate filed a $2500 civil suit against officers: William J. Jolin, James R. Jesler, Joel K. Caris, George E. Hopper and Lewis Finesilver (5).
The Bate civil trial was held on June 26, 1924. Witnesses corroborated Bate’s version of events. Judge Charles S. Burnell ruled in favor of Bate, awarding him the full $25000 damages.
Judge Burnell took the unusual step of writing to Chief Vollmer:
“I feel that I should call to your attention the conduct of 4 officers as disclosed by the evidence in the case of James H. Bate vs. William J. Jolin et al. which was tried in my department of the superior court on June 26, 1924.”
Vollmer ignored the communication. Burnell wrote again on July 21:
“While I have great admiration for the police department and am personally acquainted for with a great many of its able and conscientious officers and men, I cannot but feel that the retention of such beasts as the defendants in the case gives a black eye to the whole department. I sincerely hope that there may be some way not only of purging the police department from the contamination of such cowardly thugs, but that the city can be rid of their presence.”
Vollmer took no action. He departed the office ten days later, on August 1, 1924- one year to the day from his appointment (6). His replacement, Lee Heath, announced on August 14 that he was disbanding the Crime Crushers. The members were reassigned to other units.
Bate had not been able to collect his damages award, as the City was appealing the decision. On October 20, 1925, Bate left work at the Hall of Records about 2pm. He died an hour later.
Three and a half years later, on February 15, 1929, the State Supreme Court upheld the 1924 judgement in favor of Bate, calling what happened to him “an unwarranted, inexcusable, and cowardly attack” (7).
Despite the victory, given the experiences of Christine Collins in her successful lawsuit against officer J.J. Jones for his illegal incarceration of her in 1928, odds are Bate’s widow Minnie was never able to collect the $2500. A lawyer acting for Minnie Bate again petitioned for the dismissal of the officers involved.
“My husband was a good man,” she said. “There was no reason for the beating they gave him.”
The Los Angeles Evening Express questioned why the officers involved were still employed by the LAPD.
The department was at this point up to its neck in scandals, with five officers indicted for conspiracy along with crime boss Charles Crawford and convicted bootlegger Albert Marco for their part in the frame-up and false arrest of City Councilman Carl Jacobson; still others were implicated in a bribery case, accused of accepting payoffs from bootlegger Harry D. McDonald for a period of over five years.
Citing the Supreme Court’s ruling and its remarks, on March 7, 1929, the president of the City Council William G. Bonelli, introduced a resolution condemning the attack on Bate and calling for the immediate resignation of the officers involved.
Police Commissioner Mark Pierce, referencing Bate’s death certificate, responded that Bate “died of old age” not the beating he received from police. Further, he said, “the officers do not appear to me to be of the type that seek to bully or browbeat a prisoner. They declared they did not attack Bate.”
With the Commission dithering on whether to hold a hearing in response to Minnie Bate’s petition, the Constitutional Rights Committee of the LA Bar Association requested information on the case and said that it would launch its own investigation.
Finally, on April 2, the Commission held a meeting with various police captains and division commanders as well as Chief of Police James E. Davis, who had replaced his boss Lee Heath in 1926 (8). Davis stated that Bate had “acted suspiciously” and was carrying two suitcases at a late hour. He’d attempted to “hurry away” and “resisted arrest.”
The Commission decided on April 4 to take no action with regard to William Jolin et al and considered the case closed. To reopen it after 5 years would, the Commission said, injure the morale of the police department because each officer would feel that in making an arrest, he was liable to face charges for it later.” Further, “The police no longer roughhouse prisoners.”
(One of the officers indicted in the bribery case that year was William Jolin’s partner E.R. Brown, who was literally nicknamed “Roughhouse.” Jolin’s own nickname was “Sledgehammer.” Both claimed to have been involved in forcing Al Capone out of town during his visit to Los Angeles in 1927).
A month later, William Jolin was dismissed from the force, but it had nothing to do with the Bate case.
On April 25, 1929, a man named Anton La Strape was arrested by two LAPD officers. La Strape had written a “masher note” to a woman, addressed to “Mrs. Housewife” and asking to meet her at a certain location. The woman turned the note over to her husband. She was Jaqueline Jolin, wife of William Jolin. Jolin, with two fellow officers, arranged a sting operation. The two men went with Mrs. Jolin to the meeting spot and hid. When La Strape appeared, they grabbed him and booked him into the City Jail at Old Central station on a statutory charge (9).
A little while later William Jolin showed up at the jail and, representing himself as an arresting officer, requested the keys to La Strape’s cell from jailer John Conner. Moments later, Conner heard screams coming from the cell. He and others rushed in and found Jolin beating La Strape. The prisoner was taken to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital for treatment.
Deputy Chief of Police James Patrick Lyons, formerly the second in command of the Crime Crushers, ordered Jolin’s arrest and said the department would present the case to the DA and ask for a complaint against Jolin on a charge of assault under color of authority. On April 26, Deputy DA McIsaac declined to issue a full complaint against Jolin, however, asserting that Jolin had “merely acted the part of an irate husband avenging an insult to his wife.” City Prosecutor William V. Krown also declined to issue a complaint. La Strape refused to press charges.
Jolin was released from arrest. Chief of Detectives Herman Cline, however, did take action. He suspended Jolin the same day after hearing accounts of the assault from fellow officers.
On May 7, 1929, the police board voted unanimously to dismiss Jolin as “not a fit person to be a member of this department.”
Jolin sought reinstatement in a hearing before the Commission on October 2. Mark A Pierce was his lone supporter, suggesting that Jolin should simply be fined 5 months pay, approximately $1100. President of the Commission William Thorpe and the others were adamant that Jolin should be dismissed.
Jolin lashed out, threatening to go to the County Grand Jury and charge that Thorpe had once ordered him to release a burglary suspect.
The next day, Thorpe himself went to the grand jury (which was also considering still more allegations of bribery in the McDonald bootlegging case) and demanded it go ahead and look into the charges against him made by Jolin. On October 5, the grand jury stated that the matter had been investigated thoroughly and impartially and “after careful consideration of the facts and circumstances related to the matter, the grand jury is unanimously of the opinion that such charges made against Commissioner Thorpe are wholly untrue and without the slightest foundation” (LA Times 10/5/1929).
In the waning days of 1929, Chief Davis was demoted and Roy Steckel of the Venice Division was appointed as his replacement (10).
On January 23, 1931, Chief Steckel quietly lobbied the Police Commission for the reinstatement of Sledgehammer Jolin, dismissing other complaints against Jolin as “minor” and justifying the beating of La Strape on the grounds that as Jolin’s wife had been “grossly insulted” by the prisoner, it was a “personal matter,” not a reflection of his actions as a police officer.
On July 28, 1931, the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record revisited the Bate case in the wake of yet another beating of a prisoner by a police officer. Officer William B. Raner was accused of beating Myron Penn, a slightly built man arrested at 521 S. Main Street for drunkenness. Penn was taken to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital for treatment then transferred to County General for emergency surgery for a ruptured kidney. Raner also attacked a Post-Record cameramen, Cliff Wesselmann. Ralph (Casey) Shawhan, then a reporter with the LA Evening Herald, came to Wesselmann’s aid, jumping on Raner. Raner was suspended for attacking Wesselmann but was not disciplined for the Penn beating (11).
The Post-Record also noted that fact that Jolin had quietly been reinstated to the force seven months earlier. He remained with the LAPD until his retirement in May 1944.
In October 1931, Steckel announced that he was creating a new version of the Crime Crushers. Police Lieutenant Clemence Horrall was placed in charge of it.
Horrall later became Chief of Police on June 16, 1941. In 1947, his Deputy Chief, Joseph Reed, formed a new “Crime Crushers” squad. The unit used the police blockade method- a general stoppage of motorists by officers to randomly search their cars.
In August 1947, the ACLU brought a lawsuit against the department, charging that the practice violated the Constitution’s provision against illegal search and seizure. The department’s lawyer argued that the end justified the means. Joe Reed maintained that it was fine because only those cars containing “suspicious characters” were searched (12).
The court ruled in favor of the department, and under different names, the concept of the Crime Crushers lived on into the modern era of policing under the leadership of Chief William Parker.
(1) The local black chapter of the Odd Fellows was founded in 1895. The lodge was in a 2-story brick building (demolished). The Second Baptist Church was founded in Los Angeles the same year, the first black Baptist church in Southern California. At this time, it was housed in a 2-story brick structure built in 1892 (demolished). In February 1925, the congregation broke ground on a new structure designed by Paul Revere Williams located at 24th Street and Griffith Avenue.
(2) Chief Oaks was appointed chief of police on April 22, 1922. Four months into the job, the LAPD faced charges of corruption by the City Council, which asserted that vice squad detectives were collecting thousands in protection money from the “vicious elements” of Los Angeles (cough Farmer Page cough). Oaks defended the vice detail’s arrest record, noting it had made great strides, particularly in the bootlegging aspect of its work. By the summer of 1923, Oaks complained that political influence, most notably from Kent Parrot and Mayor Cryer’s secretary H.H. Kinney, was interfering with the workings of his department. On July 28, Oaks fired longtime officer Capt. R. Lee Heath, whom, Oaks said, took orders directly from the mayor’s office rather than the chief of police.
Less than 12 hours after removing Heath from office, Oaks was “discovered” in San Fernando, drunk behind the wheel of his parked automobile, with a quantity of liquor and a pretty young woman who was not Mrs. Oaks. Cryer abruptly removed Oaks from office on August 1, 1923 and simultaneously announced the appointment of Vollmer.
(3) Smith survived his wounds.
(4) The Crime Crushers did work major crimes when the occasion called for it. On February 20, a member of the squad, 26-year-old patrolman Glenn E. Bond, working undercover, was at the Merchants National Bank’s Seventh and Hoover Street location when armed robbers entered. Bond was shot and died later of his wounds at the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital. Bond’s partner, Fred Forbes, returned fire. No bank employees or customers were hurt. The robbers, aged 19, 20 and 22 were later caught, convicted and executed on July 10, 1925. A fourth suspect, George A. McBride, was acquitted after three trials but went on to be convicted of grand larceny in 1927. Paroled in 1930, he was convicted on three counts of bank robbery in Los Angeles on January 18, 1933.
(5) Whether by design or poor editing, The Times repeatedly misspelled the names of the officers involved in Bate’s attack. For example, William Jolin was identified as “William Johns” and “William Joline”; Jesler was “Lester;” G.E. Hopper was “Hoppers” or “Ruppers.”
(6) Vollmer insisted that his term of exactly 1 year only had been established all along. It’s been asserted that he left because of all the corruption he encountered, but this is only speculation.
(7) John W. Kemp, the prominent lawyer who represented James H. Bate in his 1923 lawsuit, died on February 21, 1929, just a few days after the State Supreme Court upheld the award he had won for Bate five years earlier.
(8) Heath was forced to “retire” for “health reasons” in March 1926.
(9) The department identified La Strape to the press as a suspect in the case of the “Wilshire Maniac,” a male who had been sending “masher notes” and making obscene calls to random women in the Wilshire district since the start of the year. La Strape admitted sending the note to Mrs. Jolin, but denied having annoyed other women. And indeed, on May 11, police arrested another Wilshire Maniac suspect, after two women reported he’d made indescent gestures to them on a streetcar. But he was not the right man, either, and the Wilshire Maniac remained on the loose.
Absurdly, the Times made no mention at all of La Strapes’ beating by Jolin at all in its reporting of the arrest on April 26, 1929. The Pasadena Post, the LA Evening Post-Record and the LA Evening Express all reported the beating angle of the story the same day.
(10) In 1933, Davis was restored to the position of Chief by incoming mayor Frank Shaw and Steckel was demoted. Davis created a version of the Crime Crushers he called the Reserve Unit, which spent most of its time enforcing the “Bum Blockade.” Both Davis and Steckel were forced to “retire” following Shaw’s recall from office in September 1938. Steckel was one of the 39 officers “purged” from the department who were suspected of being on the payroll of the local underworld.
(11) While he was in the hospital, the firm where Penn had been employed went bankrupt. His bank folded, taking its depositors’ saving with it (these were pre-FDIC days). In December 1932, Penn, who was having trouble finding work, was awarded $500 damages. He had asked for $25,000.
(12) Horrall and Reed were forced to “retire” in 1949, when the department was once again up to its neck in corruption scandals.