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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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South-Central Vice

 

1957_0909_vice

Sept. 8-12, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_0830_skidrow_2 Let's suppose you are the mayor of the nation's third-largest city. Let's further suppose that your wife has received several letters complaining about rampant crime in a heavily minority neighborhood. You might turn the complaints over to the Police Department.

Then again, you might not.

Because if you're Mayor Norris Poulson, you won't bother with the LAPD. You'll hire a couple of private investigators to look into the situation on South Central Avenue, which, according to Albertha J. Callahan, is "full of bookies by day and at night it's full of women on the street."

Nor did Police Commission President Michael Kohn contact anyone at the LAPD about the allegations. Instead, Kohn disguised himself in work clothes and drove down to Central Avenue in an old car.

"The situation was appalling," Kohn told the Mirror. "At Vernon Avenue and Avalon Boulevard I found groups of four or five girls on each corner waving at cars."

"Groups of four or five women cruised in cars and waved at men. Others stood on corners and when traffic stops for a red light, they 'come out to your car and knock on the windows,' " Kohn said, according to The Times.

By now, you're probably wondering why Poulson didn't contact Chief William H. Parker and say something like, "Oh, by the way, Bill, old chum, how exactly are things down in the 'hood?"

1957_0207_skidrow The answer: Poulson figured the police either couldn't do the job or were on the take. He had complained to the department before, he said, "but we were always told there was nothing to it. They would tell us the persons making the complaints were troublemakers or that their reports were exaggerated. The police were paying no attention to these complaints."

He told the Mirror: "We have been making inquiries through usual channels about vice conditions and getting the usual replies that everything was hunky-dory. I took it upon myself to look into the situation."

Poulson said his inquiry showed that: "Flagrant vice conditions exist in this area. Prostitution, gambling, bookmaking and illicit traffic in narcotics are allowed to flourish without apparent restraint. A condition of this sort indicates either that vice is operating with protection or reflects inadequate law enforcement in the area."

If you know anything at all about Parker (or even if you don't), you can imagine his reaction to being ambushed at a hearing, especially because Poulson didn't make his charges in person, but had Kohn read a letter while he was out of town.

Parker heatedly denied charges that the department was corrupt. Instead, he blamed a lack of officers, the higher cost of patrolling Newton Division (now known as "Shootin' Newton"), an increase in criminals who had been chased out of skid row by urban renewal, lax courts that freed suspects on low bail and recent judicial decisions that hampered the police by granting rights to suspects.

"You can't put people in jail without evidence any more,"  Parker said. "We're going to have evidence to justify arrests and I'm not going to violate anyone's civil rights and I don't want it done by anyone in the department."

 

1957_0910_skidrow

"We know who a lot of these people are, but we can't arrest them just for walking down the street," said acting Newton Division commander Lt. Walter Baker. "Not until they commit some overt act can we nab them. What's more, we think we've been doing a pretty good job as it is."

The criminals were clever, Parker said: "We have a wolf pack situation where a number of prostitutes work together. If one doesn't recognize one of our vice officers, one of the others will."

And there were more of them: Arrests for prostitution in Newton Division were up 24% from 1956 and gambling arrests increased 34.7%. Why? The demolition of skid row, police said. In the previous two years, nearly 500 buildings were destroyed, The Times said.

Police also complained that the jails had revolving doors when it came to vice arrests. Police Commission member Emmett McGaughey cited the case of a prostitute who had been arrested six times in a year, but only fined $200 ($1,433.06 USD 2006).

In response, Parker assigned Deputy Chief Richard Simon to examine the problem, along with Police Inspector James Lawrence (an obsolete rank that was between captain and deputy chief).

The LAPD sent more motorcycle officers and police cars to the area and assigned photographers to document the situation, the papers said.

1957_0909_negroes

And what about the residents? The Times didn't look into the local reaction to the vice crackdown, but the Mirror did, interviewing several African American leaders.

Dr. J.A. Somerville, a dentist and former Police Commission member, complained: "An investigation of any neighborhood, regardless of its racial complexion, will disclose prostitution in some form. The trade carries no racial label. To point out the Vernon and Central Avenue districts as a vice area because colored people live there, without naming other sections where similar conditions exist, seems biased to me and designed to discredit Negroes."

The Rev. B.O. Byrd of New Hope Baptist Church, Central Avenue and 52nd Street, said: "There is vice in almost every section of our city. In some areas, however, they are financially able to cover it up better."

What did the California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel say about the LAPD's vice crackdown? Looks like a trip to the microfilm is in order.

Stay tuned....

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