Michael Holland is LA City Archivist. This is a version of a piece he wrote for the city employee newspaper Alive!
From "Dragnet" to "Adam 12" to "LA Confidential" to "Mob City," few LA institutions are more popular with film and TV than the Los Angeles Police Department. I just wish the producers would spend more time in my office gathering … just the facts, ma’am.
“Mob City,” TNT’s new crime series, is only the latest show to explore police work in LA. Set around 1947, with occasional flashbacks, it follows the efforts of a crime unit dedicated to keeping mobsters like Mickey Cohen at bay and - hopefully - out of the city altogether.
“Mob City” is based on John Buntin’s 2009 book, “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.” I heard about the show earlier this year because my wife is a TV critic who visited the set and saw some clips last summer as they were beginning production. Before Buntin wrote his book, he did spend some time with us here at the archive, studying several of our archival resources, including the LAPD annual reports and scrapbooks.
The annual report is required under the City Charter and is sent to the Mayor, City Council, and other officials. It compiles stats on everything the police department did in a given year, including numbers of crimes reported, arrests made, and dollars spent.
The scrapbooks were started in 1947 by the department’s PR office for in-house purposes. The books contain clippings from most if not all of the local daily newspapers, highlighting who was committing the crimes and who made the arrests. They were collected and assembled in chronological order and can be very useful to follow a specific event … instead of going through miles of microfilm at the library.
The year "Mob City" opens, 1947, the annual report is 164 pages of densely packed tables, charts and graphs with incredible detail, such as which hours of what days of the week were most likely to have crime take place -- Saturday evenings accounted for 17% of all crimes committed that year. There’s no public relations spin in the report.
That had changed by 1950, the year William Parker became Chief of Police. The Public Relations office became the Public Information Division, and the role of the annual report changed, too, to highlight the department’s role in public safety and quality of life, and why the department needed more resources to do an almost impossible task. One example from 1950 shows how tough the officer recruitment process was: about 6500 people applied, but fewer than 200 survived all the exams, training, and probation for a paltry 3.8% acceptance rate.
The crime stats weren’t forgotten. They became their own published report known as the Statistical Digest and are also in the archives.
Meanwhile, the scrapbooks continued to collect stories about crooks and the cops who arrested them, but Chief Parker seemed to have given the Public Information Division the ability to include the dark side of the LAPD. The scrapbooks include former officers arrested as narcotic dealers and other criminals. One was a Wilshire Division sergeant, Harvey W. Harper. He and his wife Margaret were picked up as bookies in January 1952. The clippings follow Harper’s resignation from the force to his 8-month prison sentence.
1952 also contain many stories about the “Bloody Christmas” bar brawl involving 7 young men – mostly Hispanic – who were beaten by arresting officers at the scene, then by other cops in the Central Jail. That was the story dramatized in James Ellroy’s “LA Confidential” and the subsequent movie.
Other stories include suicides of cops and family members, shell-shocked war veterans in deadly confrontations with traffic officers, and Zsa Zsa Gabor getting a speeding ticket.
The greatest shot in the arm for morale came in the form of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet.” First as a radio show in 1949, and then as a TV show, and allegedly based on real LA crimes, “Dragnet” has its own scrapbook in the archive with press releases, comic book strips, and even real crime reporting written in the Webb’s deadpan style.
(July 25, 1958: "Television star jack Webb (second from right) and retired businessman Milton Fogleman (right) were members of three-man board to give oral examinations to police applicants here. The non-paying posts were assigned to them by the Civil Service Commission. Other board member was Police Lieut. Merle Sutton. Applicant at left is R. W. Werner." Image: LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection)
If “Mob City” gets renewed, I hope the research staff will pay me a visit. There are enough real-life stories here to support the story they are trying to tell.