Black Dahlia’s James Ellroy on corruption and crime fighting in the real LA noir
No one tells a Los Angeles story like James Ellroy. The author of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia emerged as one of America’s most treasured crime writers during the 1980s and his finest work has always delved into the seedy underbelly of LA, from the heavy hitters in the corridors of power to the morally compromised cops to the abandoned corpses waiting to be found. Now, Ellroy has teamed up with Glynn Martin, a police veteran and the executive curator of the Los Angeles Police Museum, to bring a year in the city’s life to light via the medium of crime scene photographs. LAPD ’53 is a guided tour through the City of Angels with Ellroy at the helm, providing thrilling, hilarious and nostalgic insight into an era when the cops turned the tide.
The Los Angeles Police Department was in the middle of a drastic change in 1953. At the end of the previous decade the force was mired in corruption with increasingly embarrassing public displays of incompetence, brutality and graft, culminating in the Bloody Christmas scandal of 1951, when officers brutally beat the inmates in their custody. The sweeping reform in the LAPD came from the decisive actions of Chief William H Parker, popularly known as “Whiskey Bill”. He came into office in 1950 and set about changing not only the image of the LAPD, but the way they did business.
How much of the LAPD’s corruption and dirty laundry was in the public knowledge?
Martin: Absolutely here locally, and no doubt regionally, the issues that plagued the department were known. But they weren’t dissimilar to what was going on in other police agencies, and certainly elsewhere in this nation there were departments that had even bigger issues than that, and continue to have bigger issues with officer misconduct, corruption and whatnot. But yeah, it was pretty widely known and a lot of it can be traced to what rolled across our nation way back when, which was Prohibition and that was really where it all started. It took a long time for the effects of Prohibition to ripple up this side of the pond, and ultimately what Parker did was target the organised crime influences, their influences on law enforcement and that’s what it was that he really set out to root out and in his reform of the police department.
To what extent did his actions directly affect the LAPD?
Ellroy: He reformed it from the bottom up. He stamped out monetary corruption. He advanced the military model of police work, which was very, very effective across the board. Stopped crime before it starts. Interdict it. Suppress it. And LA was a big clean safe town during his stewardship.
In the book you talk about the impact of actor/writer Jack Webb and his TV and radio series Dragnet.
Ellroy: It was essential. And it was fabulous propaganda. It was damn good television as well, I like to think of myself now, in my role as LAPD lapdog/spokesdog, and as well as yearly emcee of the Jack Webb awards, as Jack Webb for the new millennium.
A big part of the reform seems to have been public perception but to what extent did that affect the crooks?
Ellroy: Well, organised crime knew they had to get out. It was a very unfriendly atmosphere that ‘Whiskey Bill’ Parker created for them. The Gangster Squad, The Hat Squad, the airport detectives, they were going to take you somewhere and kick the shit out of you and put you back on the train, or plane or the bus, back to whatever godforsaken Eastern hellhole you crawled out of.
It’s impossible not to look at these images and think film noir. Partly because they’re so professionally staged…
Ellroy: Film noir is really a style form in motion pictures and lesser so the roman noir, it really tapped out in 1960, six years before William H Parker died in office. And the question that Glynn and I pose in the book is what came first, the chicken or the egg. Were the particular photographs that we spotlighted in this book, which were all taken by working police officers, inspired by film noir, or was film noir, the visual aspect of it, inspired by crime scene photographs?
I was struck by the professionalism of the officers when confronted with bizarre scenes, like the man in the swimsuit who’d hanged himself.
Ellroy: Yeah. Yeah, he wanted out.
There are a lot suicide pictures in the book.
Martin: One of the things that we’ve learned from unfortunately since this happened, was the post-traumatic stress disorder. Although it wasn’t discovered yet, we certainly saw this in dealing with the photographs and in particular dealing with the amount of suicides and the amount of domestic violence cases that we found photographs of. Took us by complete surprise.
The book talks about how Los Angeles’ identity was changing, with so many different cultures coming to the city and making their mark.
Martin: Yeah it did, it was a different era. You see the changes in the cars, in the cops, in the people. We’ve got the photograph of the man who beat his friend to death, it’s the cover photo, and he’s wearing a sport coat. In today’s day and age that’s not the typical attire for somebody involved in a murder. Also wearing a watch, a ring. Just one of the photographs in the book that tells a very different story. There was no crime scene tape, no dedicated crime scene preservation, in all of the photos of the scenes that contain officers you’ve got press photographers, officers, onlookers, everybody’s standing in close proximity to where the crime occurred or where the investigation has taken the officers. We’ve changed a lot from the law enforcement perspective and likewise the communities have changed and the cultures within those communities.
There’s also the geography of the city, which expanded so much after the war. That must of required a different kind of policing in itself.
Martin: Yeah, James mentioned the change in Bunker Hill [in the book] but really I think the significant change was the expansion throughout the San Fernando Valley. That was the growth in this area that we were talking about. An evolution was going on that, evolution and expansion that continued after the wars, the discovery of Los Angeles as a great place to live and work. With that the houses built up in San Fernando Valley, th
at particular expansion that we mentioned out there, post-World War II, post-Korean War was truly remarkable. Aided no doubt by the addition of freeways here in Los Angeles. There’s 464 miles under the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles and ultimately the Los Angeles Police Department. If I remember right it’s 91 miles from one end of the city to another, a massive expanse that the department is charged with patrolling and a lot of the expansion went on in 1953 and the years before and shortly thereafter