Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Unlike the cities of the mid-west and the east coast, Los Angeles never had gangster families taking control of much of its infrastructure, nor controlling its vices. Wrongdoing – yes; bizarre murders – yes, but organised crime – no. In fact, Los Angeles police may have been far ahead of federal law enforcement in admitting the threat of racketeers and gangsters and doing something about it. While J Edgar Hoover was still resisting Robert Kennedy’s drive to attack organised crime in the 1960s, Los Angeles police department had had a small and little known Gangster Squad for nearly twenty years.
Even before the Second World War, the LAPD had been pro-active in sending back undesirables who had tried to hustle in from the east. Unfortunately for their reputation many of those they did not want to admit were the Okies, trying to escape the dust bowl, but others were as notorious as Al Capone, who was allowed only a day in town before being put back on the train. Come the end of the war, and LA had expanded – new developments stretched out, new residents filled it, and many more passed through. Along with the others, Bugsy Siegel had managed to make himself at home, until one night in 1947 someone emptied an M1 carbine into his girlfriend’s house, taking out both Bugsy and a Greek statue.
Greek statues apart, the LAPD were worried about Jews and Sicilians: specifically Mickey Cohen who might – or might not – have come in with Bugsy, and represented himself as the owner of a clothes shop, while the Sicilian was Jack Dragna, who imported bananas. And then there was Jack O’Hara who had previously imported liquor during prohibition – he represented the Irish. These were all guys with money, and money buys influence and lawyers.
To oppose them the police needed men who were not afraid, who could identify gofers and contacts, who could gather information and collate it, who could plant a bug, who could bear the anonymity of letting their uniformed colleagues receive the kudos of the arrest in the flashlight of the press’s Speed Graphic cameras. At first just eight strong, and working from two cars, with no offices, those men were the Gangster Squad. Based on interviews with the survivors and their relatives, along with testimony from trials and congressional hearings, and even descendants of the villains who have not taken the wrong path themselves, Paul Lieberman, a journalist who first wrote about this in a series of columns in the Los Angeles Times, follows the eight from the ‘forties (sometimes even earlier), through changes in their name and management, up to the ‘sixties when policing itself changed. From what came out in grand jury hearings and trials the public were sometimes surprised, even outraged, at the conduct of the squad as they hassled the crooks, listened in to their dubious telephone calls, and heard what they said at home via the planted bugs, but the squad members were sure that what they were doing was necessary. If you have read Peter Wright’s memoir Spycatcher you will have an idea of what they had to do, but, unlike Wright, the Gangster Squad seem to have had better reason and justification.
While the squad managed only one major conviction in a ten year period, on the other hand the Five Families never made their home in the sun on the California coast. The Gangster Squad may have had something going for them after all.