Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Take Your Choice: A Traffic Ticket or a Ticket to the Policemen’s Ball
By ROGER M. GRACE
Twenty-Fourth in a Series
I remember that when I was a youngster, in the early 1950s, a pair of Los Angeles police officers would come to the door of our residence seeking to sell tickets to the annual policemen’s ball.
Such balls were staged in cities throughout the United States, and generally drew a large attendance. The ones in Los Angeles County featured appearances by major stars, including Milton Berle, George Jessel, and Les Brown and his Band of Renown.
Wherever held, worthy causes benefitted from the proceeds—such as funds for widows and orphans of police officers, the Red Cross, and the Girl Scouts.
But there was a down side. Traffic offenders could sometimes avoid citations—just as they could with honorary badges and courtesy cards—by buying tickets to the ball.
There were even occasions where an officer would threaten to write a citation that was wholly undeserved (at least according to the rendition by the motorist) if the officer’s request to purchase ball tickets were snubbed.
“What right, may I ask, has any police or traffic officer to peddle tickets for a policemen’s ball in lieu of the usual course pursued when traffic regulations are violated,” Walter V. Curtis queries in a letter-to-the-editor appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 23, 1925. He notes:
“Just before the ball is held the traffic officers allow hundreds of violators to go unpunished, provided they purchase one or more tickets, according to the general appearance of the person in question.”
While citizens expressed their concerns over this impropriety, I haven’t come across any newspaper editorials criticizing it, although I assume (hope) that there were some.
One editorial I’ve spotted counsels acquiesce when an officer exerted pressure. Appearing June 26, 1920, in the San Jose Evening News, it says:
“The policemen are not bashful about asking citizens to buy ticket to this affair, and there is no reason why they should be bashful about it. The money realized from the ball goes to the widows and orphans’ fund, and it must be borne in mind that the wives and children of our policemen are always in danger of being transformed into widows and orphans, so dangerous is the work which the guardians of the law arc called upon to do upon occasions—and no man knows at what hour of the day or night such occasion may arise.
“If a cop holds you up for a dollar for a ticket, throw your hands up and give him the dollar. He’s protecting you from hold-up men all the rest of the year, so why shouldn’t he be entitled to hold you up just once in a whole year—for so worthy a cause?”
Seeing it differently, “Mrs. A. Benner” complains, in a letter to the editor published in the March 9, 1927 issue of the Los Angeles Times:
“Last night (March 5) about 10:30 p.m. was driving through Culver City when a policeman stopped me to inform me my right-hand front light was out, asked him where the nearest service station was, he informed me it was back one-half block. As I started to turn around he said: ‘Just a minute; which would you rather have a pink slip, which will cost you $5 at the police station, or buy these two dance tickets for the police ball at $1 each?’ After some argument I bought the two tickets so I could be on my way, as I had a long drive before me. Just what is this, graft or what?”
A letter from George S. Barnes, appearing in the Times one week later, declares:
“I wish to inform Mrs. Benner that I made a horseshoe turn a short time ago at Eighth and Spring streets, Los Angeles, on account of street-car track being torn up between Eighth and Ninth, and was halted by a policeman and fined the price of two policemen’s ball tickets at Venice or some other place. Being in a hurry I bought the tickets at $1 each and gave them away. Have been wondering since if I was guilty of anything.”
A Feb. 14, 1928 column in the San Diego Union passes on this letter from a reader:
“The other noon a ‘cop’ dropped into the restaurant where I eat for his midday pork sandwich and coffee.
“ ‘How are your tickets for the policemen’s ball going,’ the proprietor asked him.
“ ‘Not as good as I would like,’ replied the man in uniform. ‘But if I can’t sell ’em a ticket I give ’em one.’
“ ‘No money in that for you,’ said the proprietor.
“ ‘Don’t worry,’ mumbled the man of the law between chews. ‘I tried to sell a friend around the corner one just before I came in, but he wouldn’t listen to me. Then I noticed his car had been parked there over an hour. So I gave him a ticket.
“ ‘But he probably won’t be my friend the next time I see him,’ added the cop mournfully as he strolled out toward his beat.”
Melvin Hawley was a lawyer who spent five years as Santa Clara sheriff, defeating the incumbent at the polls in 1954. A June 12, 2007 obituary on him in the Los Altos Times Crier describes him as “energetic and colorful.” The article quotes him as saying in a 1996 interview that when he entered office, the department was “sloppy and corrupt” and his aim was to “clean things up.”
A May 4, 1957 account in the Oakland Tribune reports that Hawley assailed the approach used by the San Jose Police Department in selling tickets to its annual ball. Merchants had told him of sales approaches amounting to “heavy persuasion,” the article says, quoting him as commenting:
“I think many persons approached fear [as to] what the consequences would be if they refused.”
This remark is ascribed to the sheriff:
“In fact, I am opposed to armed and uniformed men going anywhere soliciting charity from merchants. It too easily becomes a shakedown.”
Or…even where heavy-handed techniques aren’t employed, it could have the appearance of such.
In taking office, Hawley had barred sales of tickets to the Sheriff’s Benefit Assn. ball.
Here are other comments in the press:
•“The Political Bandwagon” column in the Times on the Dec. 19, 1938 notes that letters had gone out from the Pasadena Police Department over the signature of Chief Charles H. Kelley, with the aside that a solicitation by mail was the “genteel manner.”
•The column remarks that the “genteel manner” is the successor to “the nation-wide police system of offering the motorist a choice of getting traffic tickets or police ball tickets.”
•A column in the Nov. 26, 1939 issue of the Chronicle tells of watching magicians at a rehearsal. The feature trick of one of the prestidigitators, he notes, was called, “Walking away from his shadow.”
The scribe notes, “I did not see him do it,” but quips:
“I imagine it would be a handy trick to know in case you were ever trailed by a plain clothesman with a ticket to the policemen’s ball.”
•A July 5, 1953 article in This Week Magazine says that in some locales, “admissions to special privilege are given away with the purchase of a handful of tickets to the policemen’s ball.
•Harry Golden’s June 22, 1964 column in the Times observes:
“In the old days, in the American town…the Policemen’s Ball was notorious in the way it was sponsored: fellows who had exceeded the speed limit had the choice of buying three tickets to the ball or facing the justice of the peace.”
A judge of the New York County Supreme Court (a trial court) on June 5, 1978, enjoined the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of New York City from soliciting donations to its policemen’s ball or advertisements for the souvenir program for the event.
Notwithstanding that the ball was over, the court’s Appellate Division on Nov. 16 affirmed, by a vote of four judges, without a written opinion. These facts are gleaned from a concurring and dissenting opinion of a judge who wanted to order further proceedings in the trial court:
“If a contribution is made, the contributor receives a sticker with the PBA insignia and the legend ‘May the Force be with you’. It is contended that the use of such a sticker by a motorist may lead a member of the force to ignore a violation and thus abjure his duty.’ ”
The opinion notes:
“There are other police oriented organizations, which raise funds from the public, e.g., Police Athletic League (PAL), Spring 3100, a magazine, the ‘house organ’ of the police department. PAL also gives a sticker.”
New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, on Oct. 9, 1979, affirmed. The opinion says that the commissioner had not only express statutory powers to “to assume responsibility and control of the internal workings of the department,” but also the “inherent power to promote integrity and efficiency therein,” adding:
“While the commissioner’s power to promulgate and enforce regulations, however broad, is not without limitation, it is apparent that, in the context of this case, strict enforcement of these regulations serves the legitimate public concern of ensuring integrity within the police department.”
But, the policemen’s ball, and extortive fundraising techniques by law enforcement officers, are a thing of the past, right?
A cellphone video has emerged of Philadelphia Police Officer Matthew Zagursky attempting to coerce the three occupants of a car into buying tickets to a police and fire-fighters’ “thrill” show.
In the video—shown on CBS This Morning last Aug. 25 and available on YouTube—Zagursky says:
“Either you buy these, or I take your car because it’s unregistered. Ten bucks each man.”
The driver handed him $30.
Zagursky—who also uttered homophobic remarks—was reassigned to desk duty.
In the days before cell phone video cameras, the officer’s conduct would not have gained public attention.
POSTSCRIPT: The “Roaring ’20s” was marked by lawlessness, and San Francisco never had been a bastion of purity. Kevin Starr, in his 2002 book, “The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s,” mentions:
“…Tessie Wall, was perhaps the most successful San Francisco madam of the [twentieth] century….
“In the 1920s it became her custom to lead the grand march at the annual Policeman’s Ball in the Civic Auditorium. In one such promenade, Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph served as her escort.”
An April 29, 1932 obituary on Wall in the San Francisco Chronicle says that her last public appearance was at the policemen’s ball in February. It recites:
“The Civic Auditorium is a big place, but Tessie dominated that ball when she made her studied entrance, an imposing figure in white, surmounted by the famous tiara.
“All the police knew her. They remembered, ’way back in the good old days when a policeman’s ball had a bar and a flock of bartenders connected with it, the Tessie Wall of those days. Sweeping into the bar, where women were banned, and throwing a $1,000 bill on the bar with the hail:
“ ‘Drink that up, boys! Have a drink on Tessie Wall!’ ”
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company