History of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Part 1
Newsletter April 6, 2020
This is the first in a series looking at the history of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. I became curious to look at the LASD, now the largest sheriff’s department in the nation, as a way to examine how sheriffs developed and the process of myth-making, which seem to occur contemporaneously. I have found that most “histories” of sheriffs are written with a copaganda role in mind, largely remaking the office and imbuing it with mythical qualities. As I proceed, I hope to examine and think about this impulse.
I’m neither a historian nor an expert, so I welcome feedback from readers! Thank you for bearing with me.
Part 1: The Beginnings: 1850
A note on sourcing. I couldn’t find a definitive book about the early years of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The only such book is Six Gun Sound by Sven Crongeyer, with an intro by ex-sheriff Lee Baca. A common problem with sheriff histories, also true for this one, is the personal interest in those who write them, making the history of the sheriff interesting if only for the iterative and self-interested process in sculpting this history. Crongeyer is an ex- LASD deputy and wrote with the cooperation of the Sheriff. I cite such biased sources and try to give them their due skepticism. As a result, I fill in the gaps with news and other histories. Alas, with more time (which I hope will happen soon), I would dive into better archival material. For thought, I add this quote from the forward to “Six Gun Sound”:
Increasingly, modern sheriff’s offices are recognizing the value of their heroic and neglected pasts, and capitalizing on the public relations value they contain.
According to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department “official” history, (a PDF on the LASD website) the Western part of the United States during the late 1840s through the 1850s, especially Los Angeles was “lawless” because of a large number of single white men went to find their fortune:
Enthusiastic men left their responsibilities at home with their families and came to California expecting to go into the goldfields, pick up a fortune and return home. This air of adventure and uncertainty as to California's status as a territory, made conditions so chaotic that lawlessness was the rule, rather than the exception.
This is true to the extent that “enthusiastic” translates to “white men who were not concerned about the treaty rights of people already occupying the land.” Before California was annexed to the United States, much of the land ownership had already been transferred privately amongst individuals and corporations for largely extractive purposes. By 1852, the American government in California had tossed out most of the treaties formed with Native tribes and took away already-agreed-upon land ownership. Native Americans went from occupying ¾ of California to being largely homeless, subject to racist treatment, enslavement, and massacres. Eventually, the United States set aside land for tribes to live on, but most of it was barren and stripped of resources.
It’s against this violence and racism that white Americans came to California almost entirely as part of corporate enterprise: railroads, mercantilism, resource extraction, etc. As we go on to think about the emergence of law enforcement in Los Angeles, I think it’s important to keep this in mind. I use the adjective “American” to describe people and systems that were imposed by the white elites upon others. This by no means makes them legitimate, but I think the entire history of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reflects an institution that has always suffered from legitimacy from the very beginning. The people subject to early forms of vigilantism did not do so voluntarily.
The first “law enforcement” in this California was vigilantism and lynching. Most readers of this newsletter, I think, would link lynching violence to the South and Jim Crow, but, in fact, California was not lacking in so-called “frontier justice.” There were two types of informal justice systems. One consisted of ad-hoc “vigilance committees,” which mimicked a trial and involved a jury of sorts who made a decision about punishment. The other was vigilantism as I often think of it, a group of men who carried out punishment without the formalities of a trial or other legal-type system.
One of the biggest misconceptions about popular justice is that it was haphazard, consisting of rabble-rousers who enforced the law willy-nilly. This tends to be exacerbated by popular frontier histories that romanticize a sense of individual lawlessness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vigilance committees consisted of the region’s elite, mostly those holding corporate interests, who used the rule of law to ensure that business could continue unobstructed. Examples from the era include all sorts of local high society, making decisions on guilt and punishment for the accused murderers of their fellow fancy people.
Early on, Los Angeles has a reputation for being quite dangerous, including a high homicide rate. (Homicide rates are difficult to calculate because many murders – including those of Native Americans – were not reported nor counted.) It is true that the biggest interests in Los Angeles were capitalistic – cattle, railroads, etc. Because there was no mass surveillance, no forensics, and rugged terrain, law enforcement often failed to solve the problems it pretended to solve, which meant that people returned to vigilante justice.
Proponents of vigilantism made arguments along the lines of popular sovereignty, self-preservation, the right to revolt, and, of course, economic efficiency (because vigilantes didn’t cost money). A lot of these same arguments keep popping up in law enforcement (and the modern militia movement) today.
Around 1850, there also emerged a philosophical debate among American elite politicians and political philosophers as to the utility of a more formalized justice system, which would reign in vigilante violence and create a patina of due process. This led to the standardization of a system of courts, judges, and sheriffs throughout the Western United States (as established by the white elite, of course). According to some historical sources, there was hesitancy within the United States government as to whether California should be self-governing as a state because of the issue of slavery extension. But, political leaders in California were impatient and implemented a state government, including county governance, themselves. (The nation eventually caught up.)
The first sheriff of Los Angeles County, George T Burrell, took office in 1850, only two years after California as a territory became a part of the United States. He had only two deputies to assist him and was elected to serve a 2-year term (term limits would increase to 4 years at the end of the century). At the time, Los Angeles has a population of about 5,000 people; it would triple in size over the next 25 years. In the 1850 election, there was a whopping 377 votes.
Burrell only served two years and was also a judge for the last 6 months of his term as sheriff. He continued to be a judge for a few more years after 1851. Most sources agree he was a bit of a fancy man -- dressed up and city-slick with a handlebar mustache. Burrell, like all early sheriffs, collected taxes in addition to policing responsibilities, and per Crongeyer was paid the modern equivalent of $250,000 a year. The job as sheriff included running the county jail — more on that later — which was pretty insufficient to hold people for any length of time.
Burrell, nor the LASD, didn’t stop vigilantism, however. According to some historical accounts, 2/3 of all vigilante activities in California happened in the 1850s, with gradual reductions into the 1860s and beyond. In the 1860s, people began to use the term “mob” or “lynch mob” to describe vigilantism (negatively) and these mobs became more popular in small, rural towns, less popular in cities like Los Angeles, which embraced social control with democratic institutions. We will talk more about race and lynching when we get to the 1871 Chinese Massacre (in which at least 19 Chinese people were murdered), but the majority of surnames of those subject to vigilante violence are Latinx (mostly Mexicans or of Mexican descent); around a dozen were American/ European. At least one author poo-poos the idea of a “race war,” arguing that many of the recorded lynchings were class-based or otherwise not “race-only.” In light of current events, it seems more prudent to say that there were other reasons, of course, but race certainly was a factor in the vast majority, and definitely in 1871.
In some cases, when the courts didn’t succeed, lynch mobs did the job anyway. David Brown and Felipe Alvitre were convicted in courts of murder in 1854. Brown’s attorneys argued that their client couldn’t get a fair trial: “[For] some five years, and with the exception of one solitary instance, every execution has been at the hands of a mob.” The California Supreme Court actually stayed Brown’s execution for fairness reasons, but the mayor of Los Angeles was so angry that he resigned and led a lynch mob (members of which had previously met at a saloon and agreed to kill Brown if need be) to the jail (run by then-Sheriff James Barton). They broke down the jail door and hung Brown anyways.
Of course, a lot of the remnants of vigilantism remain in the LASD. Next week, we will look at the first sheriff, Sheriff Burrell, his predecessors, and the development of the “Los Angeles Rangers,” the first posse.
Next week: Sheriffs and the “Los Angeles Rangers.”
News Roundup: California
I’m a bit behind on sheriff news, so below are a few California stories:
In Placer County, Sheriff Devon Bell erroneously reported on his Facebook page in January of 2021 that a man died right after getting a COVID vaccine. Turns out, that’s wrong. Sheriff Bell –who has no medical training – issued that January statement in his role as “sheriff/ coroner” against the advice of medical officials, according to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee. Emails the newspaper received (which were not willingly turned over) show that Bell was over-eager to issue the death announcement despite the actual medical experts who argued that the cause of death was too uncertain. As the sheriff-coroner (which includes 49 of California’s 58 sheriffs), Bell’s office is indeed in charge of determining the official cause of death. Like Placer County, in every county where there’s a sheriff-coroner, there are also actual medical examiners who do the autopsies. But MEs report their findings, and do not determine the official cause of death – that’s the coroner’s job. Some counties are too small to have their own staff and, therefore, share medical staff with others. In this case, medical experts in Placer County were extremely concerned about creating undue fears about the COVID vaccine, which is exactly what happened. I have a lot to say about sheriff-coroners, but this would seem to be an example of the politics of the office getting in the way of…everything else, to the detriment of public safety. I’ll try to do a special edition next week on this issue.
The SacBee, killing it this week in sheriff news, also wrote about the continued use of solitary confinement in the Sacramento jail.
Finally, Scott Weiner’s proposed bill would remove the requirement in California that sheriffs be “POST-certified.” The argument in favor of this change is that communities could elect a sheriff who better reflects local politics.