In my research into Tacoma’s history, one of the most fascinating things I found was the story of the Tacoma Vigilantes of 1946. After reading about it, I decided that it would make a great movie so I’m writing the screenplay. Anyway, below is Officer Erik Timothy’s (the TPD’s Historian) account of what happened.
For more on the Tacoma Police Departments colorful history, check out the link under my ‘Tacoma Links’, click on ‘news and information’ and then on ‘history’.
By 1946, the war was over, the crowds were shrinking and the vice situation was bad The city was beginning to decay, and younger officers, many returned veterans, had joined the police department. There was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the way the department and city operated. What was accepted as a way of life before W.W.II was now being questioned after the war. In cities all across the nation, new efforts were being made to eliminate vice and corruption through crusading district attorneys, grand juries, and citizens committees. Of all these cities, however, Tacoma was unique because the impetus for change came from the most unexpected place – the police department itself.
On Thursday, March 28, 1946, 40 Tacoma Police Officers raided 7 gambling and "bootleg" operations downtown, arresting 54 persons and seizing over $1000 in cash. Neither the Chief of Police or the Commissioner of Public Safety were informed of the raids, and both were caught off guard. On November 23rd and 24th, 1946 the "vigilantes", as they came to be known, struck two more times, raiding 7 places and netting 42 arrests. The new police chief, Percy Gregg, immediately suspended 12 of the arresting officers.
The department continued in turmoil, with efforts made to silence the "vigilante" officers and prevent further trouble. But with those first raids, little did anyone realize that this firestorm of controversy would eventually topple the commissioner form of government. The Chicago Tribune published this ode to the Tacoma Police "Vigilantes":
O, they say that in Tacoma, Washington
A Policeman’s lot is not a happy one
If he rashly does his duty
Interfering with the booty
Of Higher ups
His brief career is done.
In Tacoma Politicians are as raw
As Chicago in worst days ever saw;
And a copper with ambition
Is predestined to perdition
If he undertakes enforcement of the law.
If he goes out on his own and makes a pinch
Of a felon caught red handed its a cinch
He’ll be banished to the sticks,
To Patrol the paving bricks,
While he listens to the meadowlark or finch.
O, a copper in Tacoma, Washington
Leads a life that’s almost anything but fun;
For the horrible aroma,
That is reeking in Tacoma,
Is a stench a young policeman ought to shun.
On April 1, 1947, Officers made raids on two locations after giving warning to Commissioner Robert Temme. One place was closed, and the other had no illegal activity. In response, Chief William Farrar dismissed 4 of the officers, calling them "Tools of the underworld interests." On June 1, 1947, Constables Clive Buttermere of Steilacoom, and Cecil Brightman of Roy, along with some of the dismissed Tacoma Officers, raided the "Star Social Club" in Fife, just across the Sea-Tac bridge from Tacoma. They arrested 67 people and shipped them by bus to the town of Roy, where they each posted $25 bail for being in a place where gambling was being conducted.
By July 27, 1947, the 4 dismissed Patrolman were reinstated with back pay, and the raids ceased. But the reverberations continued to be felt throughout city hall. A succession of Chiefs, some lasting as little as 3 months, began. Between March, 1946, when the first "Vigilante" raids were made, to July, 1953, when the department was reorganized, 8 men served as Police Chief. These included a Police Sergeant, a Police Detective, a former FBI agent and a man who ran an automobile repair shop!
The Commissioner form of government continued until 1953, and so did the problems with the police department. Since the Commissioner was, in effect, a de-facto police chief, political interference in police operations was inescapable. In addition, with very few exceptions, the commissioners knew little about law enforcement. One commissioner celebrated his election in a brothel and, when later questioned about this, replied that he was on "an inspection trip".
In November 1951, a committee of state legislators under the Chairmanship of Senator Albert Rosellini held public hearings in the Tacoma Armory as part of a statewide investigation into crime and vice. Accusations were made that the police were taking payoffs to protect vice operations, and eventually one officer went to Federal Prison as a result of his grafting. While little was proved conclusively, the hearings forced the citizens of Tacoma to take a hard look at their city. Meanwhile, the American Social Hygiene Association gave Tacoma a bad rating and the Army threatened to put Tacoma ‘off-limits’ to soldiers. Something had to be done, as Tacoma’s reputation for vice was known nationwide.
On November 4th, 1952, Tacoma adopted the council-manager form of government, the first large city in the state to do so. The new City Manager selected Roy D. Kerr, an experienced police officer with impeccable credentials, as his police chief. Chief Kerr assumed office on July 9, 1953 and that day marked the beginning of a new era for the Tacoma Police Department. Chief Kerr was the first "professional" Police Chief, having previously served as Chief of Topeka, Kansas, as well as a Deputy Sheriff and Deputy U.S. Marshal. He was also a graduate of the FBI National Academy.
When Chief Kerr took office, the police department was divided. There were many older officers that were resistant to change, and many who had been deeply involved in the corrupt practices of the past. Chief Kerr put an end to graft and corruption, and attacked vice throughout the city. Chief Kerr told his supervisors that he did not care what they had done in the past, but that he expected strict adherence to his policies in the future. In his words, "I tried to put the square pegs in the square holes and the round pegs in the round holes."
By Erik Timothy (used with permission)