Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Crime”

Crime and Picasso: The Shadowy Underworld of Art

Ulrich Boser 1

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="190"] William M. V. Kingsland left artworks but no will.[/caption]

There didn't seem anything particularly unusual about the sale of William Kingsland's art collection, at least at first. A well-known New York art connoisseur, Kingsland died in 2006, and the auction house Christie's was hired in the months after his death to sell many of his paintings and sculptures. But it turned out that Kingsland was not his given name. His birth name was Melvyn Kohn, and dozens of the artworks in his collection had been stolen from museums and galleries. The most notable include canvases by Pablo Picasso and John Singleton Copley and an Alberto Giacometti sculpture worth as much as a million dollars. "It appears that during a period of time in his life he went into galleries and took things that caught his eye," says New York Public Administrator Ethel Griffin, who is overseeing the case.

So whom did the auction house call for help? The FBI. One of its art theft investigators, Special Agent Jim Wynne, has been working the case since the beginning, researching the provenance of the stolen pieces and interviewing galleries believed to be the last verified owners. "[I wanted] to try and recover this stuff for the victims," Wynne says. And while the rightful owners of some of the pieces have been determined, most of the works still sit in a sort of legal limbo, their exact ownership unclear. The bureau recently posted images of the stolen objects on its website at, just a few clicks away from its list of the most wanted terrorists, under the headline: "Stolen Art Uncovered. Is it Yours?"

Meet the nation's art cops, assigned the long and often difficult task of returning stolen masterpieces to their owners. Art theft has become one of the world's most lucrative illegal activities, an estimated $6 billion black market business, with more than 50,000 heists occurring each year. The FBI has taken significant steps to fight the trend in recent years, creating a team of agents dedicated to recovering hot van Goghs and pilfered Monets. "Art is one-of-a-kind history that can never be re-created," says Special Agent Brian Brusokas. "If you take a piece off the wall and hide it away for 40 or 50 years, you're potentially depriving an entire generation, the whole world for that matter, of ever being able to view such a piece."

Federal art crime investigators are not new. The FBI has long had individual agents in New York and Los Angeles focused on museum robberies and art fraud. But after the massive looting of Iraq's National Museum in 2003 in which some 14,000 works were stolen, the bureau decided for the first time to form an art theft team, which now has more than a dozen agents assigned to regions in the United States. The unit aims to recover any illegal cultural property and often works with foreign law enforcement agencies. The squad has posted some major successes, recovering works by Matisse and Goya and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. "Art easily moves across state and international boundaries," says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the art theft program. "Having this network of agents has been very effective."

To join the art theft team, agents must receive special training in art and art recovery. They learn the difference between an etching and an engraving; they learn how criminals forge documents to help slip fakes into the legitimate art market. "Art is different. It's not like cars, where there are registries with license plate numbers and registration numbers," says Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit that specializes in art crime. "There is no one place where every work of art that has ever been created can be found, and it's not easy for the uninitiated to differentiate between different media, whether it's types of prints or paintings or works on paper. It helps to have a trained eye."

Art law is different, too. While thieves can be prosecuted under stolen property statutes, specific laws have been enacted to counter art crime. After the 1990 heist of a Vermeer and three Rembrandts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Sen. Edward Kennedy pushed through Congress the Theft of Major Artwork statute. The law makes it a federal offense to own or conceal any artwork that is stolen from a museum and is more than 100 years old or worth more than $100,000. The penalties include fines and as much as 10 years in prison.

But for law enforcement, and the art world, the return of a missing object often holds more significance than a conviction. "I don't think many people realize that missing art is as important as it is. What's being stolen and secreted away is staggering," says Virginia Curry, who worked art crimes for the bureau for more than a decade and retired in 2006. "For me, the first priority is to recover the art. The second consideration is to identify the most culpable person involved."

Still, recovering stolen art isn't easy. Part of the problem is figuring out the exact motivation; people steal art for all sorts of reasons. Some thieves are gangsters hoping to pilfer a trophy. Some are disgruntled security guards looking for revenge. Sometimes curators pocket artifacts because they believe that they can take better care of them than the museum or gallery that owns them. A thief once swiped a Chagall painting from New York City's Jewish Museum, and a few days later the institution received a ransom note, saying that the canvas would not be returned until Israel and the Palestinians made lasting peace. (Some months later, the Chagall was recovered in a postal center in Topeka, Kan., and investigators now believe that the thief tried to get rid of the work by sending it as a dead letter.)

For the most part, though, the crooks are motivated by cash. While the art market has slumped in recent months along with the rest of the economy, a top painting still can fetch tens of millions of dollars, with a rare Impressionist work sharing the same value as a corporate jet or a small technology firm. During an FBI sting operation to recover a stolen Rembrandt self-portrait a few years ago, an undercover agent asked the seller if he had any interest in the old master canvas. "No," the man baldly replied. "I'm in it for the money."

But is there really money to be made in art theft? For the most part, the answer is no. Criminals have few options when it comes to profiting from art crime. Auction houses have no interest in selling looted art; legitimate collectors have no interest in purchasing it. Even keeping stashes of stolen art for pleasure is unlikely. Investigators have never found any evidence of a so-called Dr. No (named after the villain from the James Bond movie), a shady, art-loving millionaire who snaps up stolen paintings for late-night viewing in the basement of his Caribbean mansion. "Art theft is a crime of opportunity," says Agent Wynne. "The problem for the thieves is that you can't sell the stuff. If it is so noteworthy and so valuable, it's extraordinarily hard to sell."

Most stolen art ends up slipping into the criminal netherworld. Crooks will hide the item in an attic and wait for a good time to sell it, or an enterprising rogue might trade the pilfered work to other criminals for guns and drugs as a sort of underworld currency. And through dedicated investigative work and good relationships with art dealers and collectors, the bureau has been able to track down more than 1,000 stolen objects over the past four years.

The FBI often recovers artworks when they come up for sale, as oblivious criminals regularly bring hot art into Christie's or Sotheby's not knowing that the auctioneers vet objects before they go under the hammer. It helps, too, that crooks don't typically have much of an understanding of art and art history. A handyman once swiped a painting from a home in Connecticut and sold the canvas to a local antiques dealer for $100. He later told investigators that he was hoping to make a little cash. But it turned out that French artist Henri Fantin-Latour had created the work, and it was worth more than $1 million.

Still, many art theft cases take years, decades, even more than a century, to crack. During the final days of the Civil War, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina's Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol. Commissioned by President George Washington, the document was one of only 14 copies created after Congress proposed the first amendments, and for more than 140 years, it remained missing. Then, in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million. A millionaire philanthropist showed interest in the document, claiming that he would buy the artifact on behalf of Philadelphia's Constitution Center. But the philanthropist was actually an undercover FBI agent, and investigators seized the document. "It was like touching history," one agent said.

As for the Kingsland paintings, Wynne continues to look for the rightful owners. The caper grew more curious when, after Kingsland's death, a mover hired by New York State to haul the collection from Kingsland's apartment to a warehouse stole two Picasso sketches, each valued at $30,000. "Those works had been stolen themselves. They had been stolen in the '60s and they were in Kingsland's apartment, and then the movers came, and then they were stolen again," says Wynne. After some sleuthing, agents learned that a Manhattan-based art broker had tried to sell one of the drawings, and law enforcement eventually recovered the works from the mover's mother-in-law. And so, at least for now, there's one art world mystery fewer waiting to be solved.


This article originally appeared in US News and World Report.

How Many Felonies Did You Commit Today? An Interview with Harvey Silverglate

Ulrich Boser 10

Every day, the average American commits three felonies. So argues civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate in his new book "Three Felonies a Day," the title of which refers to the number of crimes he estimates that Americans perpetrate each day because of vague and overly burdensome laws.

In his book, Silverglate posits that federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from legal tradition and that prosecutors can now pin crimes on anyone for almost nothing at all. The problem, he says, is modern criminal laws, which have exploded in number and become impossibly broad and vague.

I don't know if I buy all of Silverglate's arguments. Some seem a touch overblown, and conceptually, I don't believe all of his exceptions make the rule. And there is something to be said for laws that improve social policy, even if we think they're overly intrusive or burdensome. For instance, I don't like speed limits. Indeed, I probably go over the speed limit every time I take the car out. But the data strongly show that speed limits save lives--they generally make us go slower, a good thing.

Still, Silveglate's thesis is important and well-argued, and he shows without question that some laws have become painfully vague. And while his book occasionally reads more like a legal treatise than a popular text, it's one that prosecutors should be forced to read, if only to understand how easy it is to go too far.

I emailed Silverglate a few questions recently. His answers are below.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Sometime in the mid-1980s I started to notice a change in the nature of the federal criminal prosecutions that I was handling during the course of my criminal defense and civil liberties law practice. I started to represent more and more indicted clients where neither I nor other lawyers in my firm could figure out quite what the client/defendant had done to deserve to get indicted (or, if we got the case pre-indictment, what the client had done to get investigated or targeted). The client’s conduct seems to me to conform to normal standards and expectations, even if sometimes a bit aggressive or “sharp.” I started to keep notes on this phenomenon.

As the years wore on, the problems got more frequent and more acute. I was representing more and more federal criminal defendants who had done the deeds charged against them, but I did not deem what they did to constitute a crime. In the late 1990s I co-authored another long-gestating book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, about disciplinary proceedings on college campuses on the basis of vague speech codes. I vowed that someday I would write a book on this other phenomenon of federal criminal prosecutions on the basis of vague statutes, directed against innocent people.

Why is it important? 

As a civil liberties matter, a government which has the ability to prosecute innocent citizens at will, is a government which has achieved the power that has characterized all tyrannical governments throughout history. Such prosecutions, because they can be pre-textual, tend to fly under society’s and the news media’s radar. Professor Alan Dershowitz has written a trenchant Foreword to my book, in which he notes how the Soviet system of “justice” used this technique to control and terrorize dissidents. Indeed, post-Soviet Russia uses the same techniques today – using bogus “tax” prosecutions to imprison critics of the regime. In my view, this is a crucial civil liberties issue, and I’ve seen no one else write about it in any kind of systematic fashion, and so I’ve undertaken to do it. My book could not be written by a scholar or a law professor, but only by a practitioner.

How did the Code of Federal Regulations grow into such a morass?

More and more responsibility for defining and elucidating the law was put, by the Congress, into the hands of bureaucrats, and the inevitable has occurred.

Can you walk me through how exactly you estimated that someone commits three felonies a day? 

The “three felonies a day” is really a figure of speech, hardly an exact count. People who are very active in certain fields likely commit more than three arguable federal felonies a day. People who are less active in life and in commerce probably commit fewer. I would imagine that lawyers, accountants, and securities dealers commit more, while fruit-stand vendors commit fewer. But my point was that an active member of our society goes about his or her busy workday not realizing the potential for committing arguable federal felonies in a wide variety of business and personal endeavors on a typical day.

Do you think that there a danger that federal laws can be too specific? That if a law is too particular about details, that someone guilty might be let off on a technicality? 

In the first place, I do believe that it is better that a few miscreants go free than that an innocent person be convicted.

Second, if an action is sufficiently bad, then Congress can simply outlaw it in terms sufficiently clear so that ordinary people understand what they may not do. There is surely a golden mean between being too general and too specific. After all, our state common law systems manage to enact and enforce criminal laws that are fairly well understood by the populace. But the federal criminal law is divorced from our common law traditions, and we are suffering the consequences.

Third, a central problem with federal criminal law – especially the laws that fall most frequently in the category of prosecutions I criticize in my book – is that our fraud statutes focus upon the means rather than the substance of a crime. We have, for example, “mail fraud” – fraud committed by the use of the mails. Or “wire fraud” – fraud committed by the use of the means of interstate communications (phone, email). Or “securities fraud” – fraud committed in connection with the purchase or sale of securities. But these statutes do not define what “fraud” means! And often Congress, at the urging of the executive branch and of federal prosecutors, has intentionally kept such definitions vague. See, for example, my discussion in my book, at pp. 114-122, of the federal government’s intentional effort to keep the “insider trading” laws and definitions vague, so that they can prosecute whomever or whatever seems appropriate at the time. This is a veritable formula for tyranny.

What can be done to reform the system? 
I have devoted nearly my entire book to exposing the problem, but have only a very few pages devoted to suggesting, in general terms, the remedies. I do not actually propose remedies, but, rather, I propose directions in which we have to travel, and coalitions that we have to create in order to fight this largely under-the-surface tyranny. I decided to do what I do best – tell the world what I’ve learned, from my experience, is going on. I want to start a public discussion. From that discussion I believe remedies will emerge. That’s what democracy is all about, after all.


This item originally appeared in The Open Case magazine.

Methland: Q and A with Nick Reding

Ulrich Boser 1

Is crystal meth the most dangerous drug in the world? Author Nick Reding believes so, and he develops an impressive case for his argument in his new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

Using a cast of fascinating characters from drug traffickers to the town doctor, Reding's book tells the story of the tiny town of Oelwein, Iowa. Meth has ravaged the depressed town; no one, it seems, has been untouched. "Meth, it seemed, was just a part of life," writes Reding in his prologue.

Reding's account has received powerful reviews. "The book, wrought from old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting of a type that’s disappearing faster than nonfranchised lunch counters on Main Street, isn’t chiefly a tale of drugs and crime, of dysfunction and despair, but a recession-era tragedy scaled for an “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder stage and seemingly based on a script by William S. Burroughs," writes the New York Times.

I emailed a few questions to author Nick Reding about the book. He answers them below:

How did you get interested in this story? 

I first got interested while reporting a totally unrelated story back in 1999 in a small town in Idaho. I actually ended up spending weeks in the town--which was completely overrun with meth for reasons I'd only understand years later, while writing Methland--and following several peoples' lives: the same thing I eventually did in Oelwein. Part of the problem with that iteration of the story is that the sheriff's brother was a major dealer in town, as was a member of a very prominent ranching family with ties to Idaho politics. One night, the sheriff's brother, who was a major tweaker, followed me into the men's room of a local bar and said he was going to kill me unless I quit reporting the story. That's when I started looking for a new town, and eventually ended up in Oelwein.

Why is it important?

I think writing about meth is important because the drug's rise is tied directly to a much larger series of economic, social, and political issues which, taken together, account for the incredible decline of fortunes in much of the middle of the United States. Basically, meth let's us know that the part of the United States we thought was okay, isn't.

Can you tell me more about the book's heros?

The book follows four years in the life of the town of Oelwein, seen principally through the eyes of the town doctor, the assistant county prosecutor, and the mayor. It also follows the lives of a long-term addict, a recovering addict, and a major trafficker. I'd consider the doctor and the prosecutor the heroes in narrative terms, because they're the book's conscience. They're stories are similar insofar as they got out of town--one went to law school, the other to med school--only to return in order to help their hometown. What they could never have predicted was deeply-ingrained this drug would become, or how much of a toll it would take on them. How they deal with it is a lot of the story.

What does the story of the town say about drug policy in the US?

What it says is that it doesn't work because it misses the point. Drugs here are about economy and politics. For instance, that legislation designed to give Big Ag enormous breaks in fact makes drug distribution easier in two ways: one, it sucks revenue out of towns that become major trans-shipment points; two, it draws more illegal immigrants, who traffickers use as mules. That's just one small example of the interrelation of things, and of how treating drugs as though they exist in a vacuum free from the influence of politics, economics, and sociology is essentially useless. I'll have a chance to say some of that, I hope, next week, when I've been asked to have breakfast with the Drug Czar.

I loved the details like you holding onto a whiskey tumbler, thinking it might protect you. Or at least that you could use it to claw a character's eye out. Can you tell me more about your reporting and research?

Having spent a year living with a family of gauchos, or semi-nomadic cowboys in Patagonia, plus ten years off and on with meth addicts and traffickers, I'm not entirely unused to uncomfortable situations. One of the principal characters in my first book, The Last Cowboys at the End of the World, was a cattle thief who, when I met him, was on the run from having bludgeoned to death a policeman, a crime for which he was eventually caught. Without incriminating myself for anything I have or haven't done, all I'll say is that it's easier to break someone's eye socket with a whisky tumbler than with a fist.

Which, in reality, has had almost nothing to do with my reporting. It's only very, very rarely that I've had any trouble with anyone, for the reason that I only write about people that I like. I spend weeks and weeks talking to people before I settle on characters, and months with those people once I start reporting. So I wouldn't know how to do that unless I liked them. Once you accept that, hanging around with a meth addict isn't that different from hanging around with the doctor or the prosecutor.

Have you heard from the folks in Oelwein? What has been their reaction to the book?

The thing I'm most proud of with this book is that all the principal characters have said both publicly and privately that the book is right on. Clay Hallberg even went so far as to say that he'd learned things about his hometown he never knew, and saw himself in a new light, as well. I couldn't ask for anything more than that--and believe me, when I sent them all copies of the book, I was really nervous. After all, I don't think there's anything harder than having someone write about you; they'll never get it right, which is to say, I'll never say it like they would have said it. It takes incredible courage to be the subject of a book like this, and incredible dignity to be okay with it--never mind the attention it has brought them--once the book is out.

And finally what do you think the future is for a town like Oelwein?

I think Oelwein will be okay. It has only improved since the book went to the printer, adding another 400 high-paying manufacturing jobs. But part of that is that they've pushed meth out of Oelwein and into other towns in the county. Meth hasn't gone away, it's just gone somewhere else down the road (literally) just as poor as Oelwein was. Until we can account for the poverty, we won't account for the meth. Period.


This item originally appeared in The Open Case magazine.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: A Q and A with Allison Hoover Bartlett

Ulrich Boser 0

Too often true crime writing is big and overhyped. It glorifies the criminal. It ignores the convoluted nature of crime and criminal justice. In her new book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, Allison Hoover Bartlett doesn’t fall into this trap. Far from it. Her style is smooth and understated and readily acknowledges the complexities of crime and criminal justice. A short excerpt:

A couple of months after Gilkey's 2005 release from prison, I met him in front of 49 Geary Street, a building that houses several art galleries and rare book stores, in San Francisco. It was a September morning and he wore a bright white sweatshirt, pleated khakis, his beige leather sneakers, and the PGA baseball cap. He held a folder, on top of which lay a handwritten, numbered list, his to-do list for the day.

"So, how do you want to do this?" he asked.

Bartlett’s book is a quiet sort of thriller, a fascinating story about a compulsive book thief and the detective who finally caught him. Bartlett doesn’t shy away from inserting herself into the story, and it works. The story of her relationship to the book thief, John Gilkey, gives the book a tight narrative arc; it also allows for her to engage in interesting digressions on crime and books and the people who commit crimes with books.

The early reviews of the book have been excellent. “Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is the enthralling account of a gently mad con artist and his fraudulent credit-card scams, but it's also a meditation on the urge to collect and a terrific introduction to the close-knit, swashbuckling world of antiquarian book dealers," wrote Washignton Post book critic Michael Dirda.

I emailed Bartlett a few questions last week. Her answers are below.

How did you first get interested in this story?

A friend of mine came across a large, beautiful 17th century German book, and the circumstances were fishy enough that I thought it might be stolen. I wanted to find the story behind it, so I looked up “stolen rare books” on the Internet and discovered a treasure trove. Although there was no information about the German book, there was one riveting story after another about rare book theft. The thieves who interested me most were those who stole not for profit, but out of a love for the books. The most prolific of them in recent years was John Gilkey, whose story I tell in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.

Why is it important?

I learned that internationally rare book theft is more widespread than fine art theft, so there are a lot of book thieves operating in the world. And the recovery rate for rare books is nowhere near as high as that of fine art. While it’s often considered a victimless crime, this is not the case. The victim is the public, which loses access to important materials. This is a more obvious problem for libraries, but it is also an issue for dealers and collectors, whose collections often end up in public institutions. Pilfering from them is stealing from future scholarship—not to mention taking away our enjoyment of the books.

Beyond the theft problem, this story is important and timely because now that e-books are gaining in popularity, many of us are considering the meaning of books in our lives. When I started working on this book, I didn’t know anyone with an e-book, but now I know several, many of whom are authors. They enjoy their e-books for a number of reasons—yet they continue to buy books as well. There is something about the physicality of the book that is seductive, and that appeal doesn’t seem to be waning. If anything, the advent of e-books seems to be making people appreciate books even more.

Can you tell me more about the book's hero of sorts, Ken Sanders?

Ken Sanders is a rare book dealer who is as obsessed with stopping thieves as Gilkey was about stealing books. He is a lifelong book lover (his father jokes that he was born clutching a book), and nothing makes him more irate than someone ripping off booksellers. As the security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, he spent years figuring out who was stealing so many books from his colleagues, where this thief was, and how to catch him.

Do you think law enforcement could do more to protect book owners--and pursue book thieves?

In order for law enforcement to help, they need to be informed when thefts occur. Historically, rare book librarians and dealers have tried to keep thefts quiet, but the good news is that this is changing. Just this year, the British Library did a media splash after they suffered a big theft. The thief was caught and sentenced to two years in prison. The Library went public with the news in order to make it clear that they will not tolerate theft. This would not have happened a few years ago. By the way, not all thieves end up doing much time. On the rare instances that they are caught, they are usually given extraordinarily light sentences, even when they’ve stolen millions of dollars worth of books. I think this is because the very qualities that help them steal rare books in the first place (they can be polite, erudite, adept at conning people) help them win over judges, convince them that they will never steal again.

In the book, you ask: "What sort of person returns to the scene of his own crime?" Gilkey is that sort of person. What does that say about him?

I think it proves that Gilkey still wants to be a part of the rare book world, and that he doesn’t fully grasp how angry dealers are at him. He loves books and wants to build his collection, so he continues to visit stores and rare book fairs. Like most obsessions, bibliomania is nearly impossible to tame.

It seems like your relationship with Sanders has had its ups and downs. How has he reacted to the book? And Gilkey? Does the story--as you say in the final pages-- never really end?

Sanders was difficult at times, but that’s because he’s a man of strong opinions, and we did not always see things the same way. That said, I have great admiration for his dedication to books, his family, and his colleagues in the rare book trade. Without Sanders’ dogged pursuit of Gilkey, my guess is that Gilkey never would have been caught. Sanders is also an adept storyteller, and without his generosity, I’d never have been able to write this book.

Sanders is very supportive of the book, as is Gilkey, although he has not yet read it. Gilkey did, however, read an article I wrote about him and was pleased with it.

So does the story end? 

Of course, I cannot predict the future, but given Gilkey’s ardent love for books and his inability to resist stealing them, and Sanders’ impassioned drive to stop theft, my guess is that the story will continue.


This item originally appeared in The Open Case magazine.

LA Noir: Q and A with John Buntin about the struggle for the soul of LA

Ulrich Boser 0

"Other cities have histories. Los Angeles has legends." So begins John Buntin's new book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. The book provides a fascinating history of the city of angels, telling the story of the town's most storied cop, Bill Parker, and its most infamous robber, Mickey Cohen.

Buntin uses a dual biography to give the book a strong narrative backbone. Former boxer Mickey Cohen became Hollywood’s favorite mobster and ruled the city's underworld for years. Bill Parker grew up in South Dakota, son of a fabled lawman, and was determined to free the city of corruption. The two men clashed and their fight helps to explain--to use Buntin's expression--how in fictional terms the L.A. Confidential police department gave way to the Dragnet-era LAPD.

The book has received good initial reviews. “Packed with Hollywood personalities, Beltway types and felons, Buntin’s riveting tale of two ambitious souls on hell-bent opposing missions in the land of sun and make-believe is an entertaining and surprising diversion," wrote Publishers Weekly. I emailed Buntin some questions about his new book last week. He answered them below.

How did you get interested in this story?

Six years ago I went to Los Angeles to write a story about Chief Bill Bratton's efforts to bring New York-style policing reform to the LAPD. I had lived in Los Angeles previously and been fascinated by the city, so I did more research than I ordinarily would (and ordinarily I do a lot of research!) As I started reading, I was struck by several things. First, for a city whose past has inspired so much noir film and fiction, from Robert Towne and Roman Polanski's Chinatown to James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential to Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins, there wasn't as much history as you would expect.* The second thing that struck me was how fantastically corrupt the LAPD was in the 1920s, 30s, and into the 1940s — and how quickly that changed.

It's really quite jarring. During the 1920s and 1930s, the LAPD answered to an unholy trinity of corrupt politicians, business tycoons, and underworld figures. Then, suddenly, in the early 1950s, the LAPD broke free of these corrupt influences. In fictional terms the L.A. Confidential department gave way to the Dragnet-era LAPD. I found myself wondering how it happened, and so I started digging. My research soon led me to William H. Parker III, who ruled the department from 1950 to 1966.

Why is this story important?

For three reasons. First, along with O.W. Wilson, Bill Parker was one of the creators of what criminologists call the professional model of policing. He helped move policing away from officers walking beat and solving problems and into patrol cars where they were controlled by central dispatchers governed by industrial principles of efficiency. Most criminologists now regard this as a serious mistake. So understanding why he did what he did is important. Second, I believe that understanding Parker is actually a prerequisite to understanding 20th century Los Angeles. In 1934 and 1937, then-Lt. Parker helped draft changes to the Los Angeles city charter that laid the legal foundation for the independent police department that he then fashioned from 1950 to 1966. Not only did Parker free the department from corruption, he freed it from political accountability. Even the Watts riots didn't dint his influence over the city. The system Parker outlived Parker himself. He died in 1966, but in 1978, his former driver, Daryl Gates, took command of the department. Not until after the Rodney King riots was the legal foundation of the system Parker built disbanded. Even now, he remains a controversial figure — a hero to law and order conservatives, an "arrogant racist" (in the words of a recent L.A. Times editorial) to liberals. Getting Parker right entails coming to grip with Los Angeles's racist past. That's important. Which brings me to the third, much lighter reason.

Parker was a charismatic speechmaker, a man with a taste for jeremiads. To help him craft them, Parker relied on a young LAPD officer named Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry later left the department to pursue his Hollywood dream of a television show named Star Trek. Rumor has it that Roddenberry based Mr. Spock on Chief Parker. So maybe you need to understand Parker in order to understand Star Trek too!

Can you tell me a bit about the book's hero, William Parker?

Parker arrived in Los Angeles in 1922, as a 17-year-old kid. It was an incredible moment in the history of the city. L.A. was a boomtown, the destination of the greatest internal migration in the history of the United States. It was also a hucksters' paradise, a city full of bunco men and earthly temptation. In some ways, Parker should have been ready for it. He'd grown up in another fabled boomtown, Deadwood, South Dakota. In fact, his grandfather, the first William Henry Parker, was the crusading D.A. who cleaned Deadwood up. So Parker knew about boomtowns and had law enforcement in his blood. (His first job was actually as a hotel "dick" at Deadwood's Franklin Hotel.) But nonetheless, upon arriving in L.A., he succumbed. The book itself has the particulars, but the large point is that for Parker the lures of the L.A. underworld were very real and very personal. After joining the LAPD in 1927, they became even more so. Parker quickly discovered how "the combination" ran the city and set out to stop it. It was that decision that ultimately put him on a collision course with mobster Mickey Cohen.

You say that Parker battled mobster Mickey Cohen for the soul of the city. Were the stakes really that high?

Yes. Los Angeles then was such a new city. Though it was founded in 17871, in 1875 it had only about 5,000 residents. By 1900, it had 100,000. By 1920, it had 1.2 million. There was a very real question about what the DNA of the city would be. In the mid-1920s, a local Republican party official wrote his friend, Herbert Hoover, about the city that was appearing in despair: "The city machine here is developing all the earmarks of the usual type of a large city political organization." So those were the stakes: would Los Angeles become another Chicago, meaning the Chicago of Al Capone? And those continued to be the states throughout the 1950s, at least in the eyes of Chief Parker.

Does Parker's system live on?

Not any more. After the Rodney King riots, Angelenos passed charter amendment F, which limited the chief of police to two five-year terms and gave the mayor greater control over the position. However, neither of the first two chiefs who followed Daryl Gates had truly successful tenures. When Bill Bratton took over seven years ago, the LAPD has still a very provincial, inward looking department that was hostile to and often contemptuous of outsiders. There's still some of that there, particularly among the old guard, but after seven years most observers believe that Bratton has finally changed the culture of the department. He's replaced or reshuffled the top brass, and most of the officers on the force are now new. The LAPD is now a majority minority force, and relations between the department and the city's ethnic groups has improved dramatically. A recent evaluation of the department by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government found that 83 percent of Angelenos, including solid majorities of every racial and ethnic group, now say the LAPD is doing a good or excellent job. So I think the Dragnet-era LAPD is finally dead.


This item originally appeared in The Open Case magazine.