'Kindly Explain This': the Los Angeles Police Department and the Chinese Tongs, 1876-1900

Amy Jin Johnson, Brown University

Between 1876 and 1889, fifteen men served as Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. After the city’s population doubled between 1870 and 1880, and then tripled between 1880 and 1890, gambling, prostitution, and violence were running rampant, particularly in the Chinatown district near the Old Plaza. Underpaid and untrained, it is not surprising that these early officers were regularly accused of accepting bribes to allow certain brothels to operate and taking sides in violent disputes between Chinese tongs. Desperate to find a leader who could resist corruption and uphold white, middle-class standards of Victorian civility, the city fathers appointed John M. Glass, a recent transplant from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Chief of Police in July 1889. Over the next eleven years of his tenure, Chief Glass created the first police districts, substations, and entry-level recruit requirements, establishing a professionalized force complete with Winchester rifles and military-style uniforms. Despite Chief Glass’s efforts to squelch the corruption that had plagued the force under his predecessors, individual officers continued to moonlight as hired guns and informants for the Chinese. This paper explores the early history of the Los Angeles Police Department, examining how the force’s relationship with the Chinese community created a crisis of leadership that culminated in a deadly battle for supremacy between the Hop Sing and Bing Kung tongs under Chief Glass’s watch. While some historians have claimed that law enforcement stayed out of Chinese affairs during this period, this paper reveals that the connections between individual officers and the tongs ran deep including bribery, perjury, kidnappings, and murder.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 66. Debating Progressive-Era Police Professionalization