Small Cities Can Lick Crime, Too!
By Andrew Hamilton (Coronet, May, 1956)
From a law-abiding community, Burbank became a gangsters' haven until the citizens, led by hard-headed businessmen, awoke and took action
Burbank, California, a pleasant city of 90,000 persons in the famed San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, is a typical American community.
It has well-kept homes, good schools, a symphony orchestra, an art association and 43 churches. Among its 300 industrial firms are Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Walt Disney Productions and Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. It's about the last place you'd look for lawlessness and civic corruption.
But, on April 21, 1952, the California Crime Commission jolted the city out of its complacency by arguing that "the people of Burbank are virtually without protection against the inroads of organized crime..."
Burbank was quickly turning into a "bedroom for hoodlums" because it housed some of America's most notorious underworld characters.
Joe and Frank Sica, said to be members of the infamous Mafia, ran the Champ Cafe as a hangout for mobsters. Ted Jabour Lewis, reported to be associated with Detroit's Purple Gang, swaggered around town with an honorary police badge and gun permit. Mickey Cohen, recently released from prison for evading income taxes, and Ralph Maddox, a big-time bookmaker with a criminal record, both operated wide-open gambling joints.
When two honest rookie policemen raided Cohen's casino at the Dincara Stock Farm they were transferred to another beat and the case was dismissed on the ridiculous story that a "Rabbi Rosenberg" had been holding a meeting in order to raise some funds for Free Palestine.
Maddox's horse-racing and football betting syndicate, also operated with the connivance of the police, reportedly grossed better than $2,500,000 annually.
Chief of Police Elmer Adams, on a salary of $8,500 a year, owned an expensive home and two luxury yachts, bought $250 suits at a clothing store owned by Mickey Cohen, and frequently flashed a huge roll of greenbacks.
Chief Adams, as well as Floyd Jolley and Walter Mansfield of the Burbank City Council, were often guests at the home of Ralph Maddox. Mansfield made trips with him to Las Vegas; Jolley shared an expensive beach house with him at Balboa.
If the average Burbank home owner didn't know what was going on, a small group of business and professional people did. And on August 31, 1951, key officials of Lockheed, Disney and Warner Brothers met to discuss the cancerous growth since World War II of gambling, bookmaking, prostitution, and irregularities in Burbank's city government. They feared the introduction of dope peddling, protection rackets and, later, a complete breakdown of law and order.
Out of that meeting was born the idea of the Burbank Citizens' Crime Prevention Committee - inspired by the Kefauver Committee hearings. It differed from the usual 'do-good' group in that almost all 35 members were hard-headed businessmen. Bonar Dyer, Walt Disney studio executive and then president of the Burbank Chamber of Commerce, became its first president.
The initial step was to raise funds to keep the committee going for three years - the minimum estimated time for an investigation and cleanup. Approximately $150,000 was quietly pledged. The committee recognized that a professional job was required and that it must stay free from local politics.
After canvassing the entire United States, the committee found its chief investigator practically in its own back yard. He was 34-year old George D. Thomson, a 6-foot, 180 pound graduate of the University of Michigan Law School who had recently resigned from the FBI after 10 years of service and established a law practice in Los Angeles. He was given a free hand.
At first, progress was slow. Thomson and his FBI-trained staff met with evasion or stony silence by Burbank officials - and with apathy or fright by Burbank citizens.
More than one said, 'I'm afraid of a bullet in the back."
The BCCPC had no official status, no power to subpoena or examine witnesses under oath, none of the usual weapons of state or congressional investigation committees.
But with bulldog tenacity, Thomson and his staff patiently assembled the frightening details of what had been going on beneath Burbank's sunny surface. Then heads began to fall - and they've been falling ever since.
Chief of Police Adams resigned three days after the California Crime Commission publicly announced his refusal to answer questions about his income and relationship with underworld characters. Three months later, City Manager Howard Stites resigned after 21 years of service, charging 'encroachment" upon his administrative responsibilities. Later on, Walter Mansfield resigned from the City Council.
In the spring of 1952, three other councilmen were voted out of office and the 'good government" element gained a majority on the City Council. In this election, many housewives and younger voters got their first taste of politics.
By mid-1953, Thomson and his staff had completed the major part of their investigation. The Burbank Citizens' Crime Prevention Committee submitted a devastating 76 page report of its findings to the new City Council. It made 17 recommendations to tune up the sputtering machinery of city government.
Burbank police officers had been instructed to channel all complaints and arrests for gambling, bookmaking and prostitution through Chief of Police Adams. Morale of the department was low, training nonexistent. Honest officers were afraid to make gambling arrests. At certain hours of the night, not a single prowl car was on duty.
In the Burbank City Hall many questionable procedures were spotlighted. The city's electrical code had been relaxed to allow installation of inferior wiring in 400 tract homes for which Councilman Mansfield was the sales agent. A light bulb contract had been awarded to a Los Angeles 'supporter" of Councilman Jolley - even though a Burbank dealer offered a substantially lower price.
In May, 1954, a newly-appointed City Police Commission, under the chairmanship of Attorney Earle Burke, also an ex-FBI man, scheduled three weeks of public hearings on what many people called 'the mess in Burbank." The names of many of the 40 witnesses subpoenaed were suggested by the BCCPC.
The hearing room in the City Hall was jammed with the wide-eyed Burbank citizens who heard Floyd Jolley sneer at the BCCPC and call its members 'rats," 'vigilantes," 'Dick Traceys." He interrupted witnesses and shouted at the chairman. Once, he was escorted from the hearing room by two policeman upon Burke's orders.
'The Police Commission hearings did the one thing that was necessary to insure the success of the Burbank clean-up," points out Thomson.
'Up until then, a number of people simply didn't believe the facts we'd uncovered. Or they shrugged them off as 'politics.' The hearings, with testimony under oath, made it abundantly clear that the welfare of Burbank citizens was not being protected.
'To my knowledge, this is the first time that such hearings have been employed on the municipal level in the United States. This is a powerful weapon that can be put to use by other communities. Exactly what did this noisy, three year campaign of fact finding, counter charges, name-calling, investigations, public hearings, red-hot elections and recalls do for Burbank? The answer: plenty!
Burbank's new Chief of Police, Rex Andrews, is considered to be one of the most capable and incorruptible in the U. S. Formerly chief in Winnetka, Illinois, and a major in Army Intelligence in World War II, he was chosen in a nation-wide examination.
He has overhauled the department, added new patrolmen, set up an in-service training program, written a duty manual, reduced gun permits from 300 t0 25, recalled all 'honorary" police badges and cards, upped patrolmen's salaries from $386 to $429 per month.
Result: serious crimes have dropped 30 per cent and auto deaths 45 per cent in the last two years, while solution of crimes has increased 100 per cent.
The new Burbank City Council, under the leadership of Mayor Earl Blais, has passed a score of new ordinances based upon suggestions by the BCCPC and the Police Commission. With municipal politics laundered, a new community pride developed. Under a 'pay-as-you go" plan of financing, much needed city improvements were authorized which will not raise the property tax rate a single penny.
'Burbank now has the reputation of being one of the cleanest cities in the country," says John Canaday, Lockheed executive and one of the original founders of the BCCPC, who is now chairman.
'Credit is due not only to BCCPC, but to hundreds of aroused citizens - businessmen, housewives, school teachers, factory workers and students - who learned for the first time in their lives that local government is their responsibility.
'It took major surgery to restore Burbank's reputation for being a good city in which to live. Now the job of the crime committee is to remind the patient occasionally that he might need a medical check-up."