I’m a socialist, a word once much more commonly spoken in this culture. I’m not doctrinaire, in that I believe politics arises from circumstance. But humans evolved as group critters, who cared for one another, despite the frequent conflict with other human groups, and that seems to me the best way for us to go.
There’s one subculture in the U.S. that’s actually socialist, at least to the degree permissible today. It’s also one of the most militantly ardently opposed to socialist politics.
I refer, of course, to the police.
What other occupation offers such solid salaries, unique job protections, good health benefits, and an ever-accruing pension that follows you intact and growing from job to job, agency to agency, and state to state.
They’re the folks given guns to enforce the laws passed by legislators and passed by referendum mandates, laws often driven by darker motives than their words reveal. Consider drug laws. America once allowed its citizens to imbibe of opiates and cannabis extracts through over-the-counter purchases. And the Coca in Coca-Cola really was coke, cocaine extract prepared from coca leaves. Pope Leo X even endorsed the delightful stimulative properties of Vin Mariani, a wine with a hefty dollop of cocaine added.
San Francisco, my neighbors across the Bay, passed the nation’s first drug prohibition, targeting the opium smoked by Chinese immigrants [then dubbed “The Yellow Peril”]. Laws against injectable opiates, marijuana, and cocaine followed similar waves of racist hysteria against the “depraved crimes” of blacks and browns and the “heinous influence” exerted by the “lesser races” on guileless white youth.
Drug crimes fill our prisons, to little avail. We legalize the most destructive drugs, while penalizing others that many folks would otherwise prefer. And drugs keep cops employed and have led to the unprecedented political clout of California’s prison guard union.
I mention all this to show that I’m not unalloyed supporter of everything that police do. That said, they are also necessary, since we also have our share of psychopaths, the sort of folks given to saying things like “If god didn’t want ‘em sheared, he wouldn’t have made ‘em sheep.”
The “cop shop” is typically a reporter’s first job, night cops if the paper is a daily. It was my first beat at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, my first such job.
For my first years in the newspaper game, my coverage of police was devoted to breaking news stories of the “Man Kills Wife, Self” and “I-5 Crash Kills Six” sort. It wasn’t until I worked for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook in the latter 1970s that I began to cover another level of police work, the one that represents the rot at the heart of many of our public and private institutions, organized crime.
My first foot in the door came through Bill Beebe, the paper’s outdoor writer and Sunday magazine editor, as well as a superb lensman and the most skilled darkroom artist I’ve ever met in those pre-Photoshop days.
Bill had heard that several dozen Los Angeles County criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, and at least one judge had attended a dove hunt in Yuma, Arizona, which had included several convicted criminals and suspects in major national drug operations. The letter of invitation, which Beebe had uncovered, promised each hunter hundreds of birds, vastly more than the legally allowed limits.
I told Ron Funk, the best editor a reporter could want [and co-owner of the paper], that the story could take a lot of work, as well as some travel. “You think there’s a story there?” Ron asked. “Yes,” I said, “on the basis of some phone calls.” “Then do it,” he said.
At Beebe’s suggestion, I talked to Jack Tobin, a Time, Inc., newsman who knew more about organized crime than any other Los Angeles-area newsman, he told me, “You need to talk to Marion Phillips.”
Phillips had served as the lieutenant of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Organized Crime Intelligence Division, the mob squad made famous in the novel of James Elroy. At the time, he had retired from LAPD and was working as a special consultant for the California Attorney General’s Bureau of Organized Crime and Criminal Intelligence. When I called, his first question was “Who gave you my name?” I mentioned Tobin, and he said “I’ve got another call. I’ll have to call you back.”
The question, or its close cousin, “Who do you know?, would be posed by countless mob cops, local, state and federal, in the years to come, and “Marion Phillips would be my invariable response, because everybody knew Phil, or “The Lieutenant,” as he was known to his colleagues.
He was the most valuable source I ever had when it came to digging into the underworld and its links to the overworld.
He had one simple rule, he told me: He’d tell me anything he had, but I could never quote him, and he’d deny anything I attributed to him. “I’ll tell you where you can go for confirmation, but you’ve got to leave me out of it.” It was a deal I readily accepted.
Thanks to his help, I was able to nail down the criminal connections of the participants in the dove hunt. My own digging turned up the names of all the participants, and the fact that one attendee, the Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, then the nation’s largest regional jurisdiction, had violated county regulations by taking his county car to the hunt, where he’d tried to hide it behind a haystack while he proceeded to kill more doves than the law allowed. I even found the deputy sheriff who gave him a ticket for the offense.
In the years that followed, I met with Phil more than a hundred times, and called him frequently. I never quoted him, nor did Ron make me divulge my source, since I followed his rules.
We never talked politics, though I’m sure he knew I’d once been arrested for my opposition to the Vietnam War [though not convicted] and the feds at one time had a file on me. For Phil, as for the other intelligence officers I later met, the desire to get stories out they couldn’t prosecute because of political realities outweighed any disagreements over politics.
Thanks to Phil, I broke major Mafia stories at a time when the Los Angeles Times studiously ignored the mob and its local operations unless some official agency made arrests and prosecutions resulted.
He gave me an invaluable education in the underworld and its pernicious mutual embrace with the upperworld. He introduced me to the world of Sid Korshak [see the Roman Polanski series linked in the sidebar for more, or use the blog’s search function], to ties between the mob and both political parties in California, and the nasty little bargain that lead to the Los Angeles Music Center [subject for another column].
The Lieutenant changed the way I see the world, giving me a critical awareness that the world of appearances wasn’t the world of reality. He taught me to look beneath surfaces in a way I never had before.
I was living in Napa when he died, and I went to his memorial service, where I found myself surrounded by people I’d met through him, and by the fedora wearing tough old birds who’d long since retired from the LAPD mob squad.
I didn’t agree with everything Phil had done. His squad had also targeted political radicals, including several people I knew. But we avoided politics, because we were useful to each other, with Phil providing knowledge I had no other way of learning, and with me providing the hope that some of it could come to light.
At the time, I was the only reporter in Los Angeles County regularly reporting on organized crime, and that for a paper with a circulation of 40,000. Between my court stories and my organized crime reporting, I had the best newspaper job in L.A., as many reporters frequently reminded me. When I had the chance for a job at the Los Angeles Times, I turned it down. I had a much better job, even though it paid a lot less.
Thanks to Phil and an editor willing to tread where other editors wouldn’t go, the Evening Outlook’s readers received unique insights into the forces shaping their lives. I’ll be forever grateful to Phil. Our relationship was mutually rewarding, though far more for me in the form of the scores of contacts the mention of his name facilitated.
I miss our calls, which always began with me asking “Hey, Lieutenant, what’s new?” He invariably responded, “Oh, nothin’ new, nothin’ different.” But there always was.