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

“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.

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