Ending Racism Won't End Police Corruption
At 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 24, 1927, Sam Faulkner was already asleep in his parents’ Los Angeles home. The Faulkners were African-American, and they lived in the segregated black district of the city. Sam’s parents were sitting in the living room while their son slept. Their home was owned by their daughter, Clara Harris, who lived in the adjacent home on the same lot.
When the Faulkners started to hear a disturbing ruckus coming from Clara’s home, Sam woke up and immediately leapt out of bed to check on his sister. With his parents following more slowly behind him, Sam entered his sister’s home to see what was the matter. When he arrived, he found two LAPD officers – Maceo Bruce Sheffield and Frank Randolph – searching the house for illegal liquor, terrifying Clara and a few friends who were visiting her at the time.
When Officer Sheffield saw Sam Faulkner, he pulled out his revolver and shot him in the head. By the time Sam’s parents showed up, he was already lying dead on the floor of his sister’s home. His eighty-six-year-old father, John, a former slave, cried out to his wife, “They killed our boy!” Sheffield and Randolph were already out of sight, so John didn’t know who “they” were. In his distress, he ran to a nearby store and, unware of the irony, called the LAPD to report his son’s murder.
While he was gone, Sam’s mother cradled the lifeless and bloody head of her son. Officer Sheffield, who had been in another room, found her and kicked her hand, saying that if she did not move away from the body, he would shoot her. Mrs. Faulkner, in tears, accused Sheffield of murdering her son. Between her wails of anguish, John Faulkner’s reporting of the murder in a nearby store, and the quick flow of information in the close-knit community, a crowd started to form around Harris’s house, along with two new officers that showed up in response to Mr. Faulkner’s call to the police.
As Sheffield casually conversed with his recently arrived colleagues, the crowd recognized him. Sheffield was responsible for the arrest of a full ten percent of the city’s black population since 1925. He was brazenly corrupt, as were nearly all officers in the LAPD during prohibition (and even after its repeal). He extorted money from bootleggers and illegal gambling rings (gambling was only legally permitted for licensed whites who operated in segregated sections of the city, so gambling was effectively criminalized for Los Angeles’s black residents), and he – as well as other officers – had carried out repeated cases of brutality, sometimes resulting in the deaths of their victims. Sheffield was a known terror to LA’s black district, but the slaying of Sam Faulkner was the straw that broke the camel’s back; the people demanded change to the city’s policing practices.
With the help of the NAACP, the black community organized a protest campaign and issued a list of demands for the LAPD. First, they demanded that Sheffield and Randolph be convicted for the murder of Sam Faulkner. Second, they called for an easement of the enforcement of “public order” charges, referring to arrests for crimes such as vagrancy, drinking, prostitution, and gambling (additionally, the LAPD had quotas that pressured them to make arbitrary arrests and file false charges). Finally, the protestors demanded the hiring and promotion of more black police officers.
Sheffield and Randolph faced trial and testified to the legitimacy of their actions. Through the window of Clara Harris’s home, Sheffield said, he saw her pouring a man a drink, and he suspected it was alcohol. Merely carrying out their duty, the officers kicked in her door. While they were searching the home for liquor, Sam Faulkner showed up with a gun and shot Officer Randolph in the arm. In self-defense, Officer Sheffield fired back, killing Faulkner.
If Sheffield’s testimony wasn’t enough, a black woman named Glasco Givens called a few days after the shooting to tip the police that she had seen a bag of heroin on Harris’s front porch, which the police promptly recovered. The two officers who responded to Mr. Faulkner’s call testified that Sam had a gun in his hand when they saw the body.
The prosecutor was calling for the death penalty, but the bullet in Randolph’s arm – more than anything else – seemed to confirm Sheffield’s side of the story. The only way to match the bullet to its gun, though, was to dig it out, which would have required hacking up Randolph’s arm to the point that it would have to be amputated. Wanting to keep his arm and avoid the death penalty, Officer Randolph turned against Sheffield and told the truth.
Prior to the raid, Sheffield consumed a bottle of whiskey. Then, drunk, he told Randolph that they were going to raid a home on Fifty-First Street – Clara Harris just happened to have the bad luck of having them randomly choose her home. After kicking down the door, the officers commencing overturning furniture and harassing Harris’s guests. Upon the arrival of Sam Faulkner, the inebriated Sheffield started firing his gun, hitting Harris in the arm before landing the shot that killed Sam. When the other officers arrived, Sheffield told them exactly what to say, and he planted the gun on Faulkner’s body. Before the trial, he strong-armed Glasco Givens into calling in the false tip, providing the opportunity for him to plant heroin at Harris’s house.
When Randolph gave his testimony, the other two officers claimed that Sheffield forced them to perjure themselves; Randolph was telling the truth, they admitted. The court ordered Sam’s body to be exhumed, and the bullet they retrieved matched Sheffield’s gun. The case was open-and-shut. Sheffield was guilty of murder.
But Los Angeles juries already had a long history of acquitting police officers charged with brutality and other offenses. Sheffield wasn’t worried. In fact, while the jury deliberated, he took a nap on a bench in the prisoner’s room where he was held. The jury deliberated for a day and a half. When they finally gave their decision, they ruled Sheffield not guilty. In addition to the acquittal, Police Chief James Davis promoted Sheffield to lieutenant sergeant and – as a reprisal for selling out his fellow officer – fired Officer Randolph, denying him his pension after taking a bullet in the arm.
The first demand of the protesters was not met, and when Sheffield went back to work, he saw to it that they didn’t get their second demand either, resuming his practice of eagerly enforcing “public order” laws against the residents of LA’s black district. He kept this up for another two years until he was charged with numerous counts of bribery and extortion and was set to face trial again. Sheffield fled the city, but he eventually returned – never having faced trial on the corruption charges – and found work in Hollywood, producing and starring in several films, some of which were based on his experience as a police officer.
The only demand that the LAPD was willing to comply with was the hiring of more black officers. The protestors reasoned, quite obviously, that if the city employed more black police officers, racially motivated law enforcement would decrease.
But there was a major flaw in this logic. Sheffield was black, as was Randolph and the two cops who perjured themselves in Sheffield’s defense. Every officer involved in the murder of Sam Faulkner and the subsequent cover-up attempt were African-American. In fact, the LAPD, in 1927, was already one of the most ethnically diverse police forces in the country.
Meeting the demands of the protestors, the city hired additional black officers, but the targeting of the black district for easy arrests and extortion persisted. The murder of Sam Faulkner has been largely forgotten in light of more recent and tumultuous clashes between the LAPD and the city’s black residents, such as the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the Rodney King riots of 1992, but Sheffield’s story of corruption, abuse, and murder serves to illustrate two lessons that are still relevant today.
The first is that, despite the common misapplication of the term, institutionalized racism (as I defined it here) is a real thing, and it is bred by the State. There is little reason to believe that Sheffield or the other officers, as African-Americans themselves, were motivated in their actions by racism against black people. They were corrupt officers who sought to use their authority to enrich themselves on the backs of vulnerable citizens who had little means of recourse against their abuses of power, which – as the Faulkner murder trial demonstrates – was legitimatized by the city’s legal system. But they weren’t motivated by race.
However, what made the citizens of the black district vulnerable to begin with were explicitly racist laws passed by the California and Los Angeles legislatures for the purpose of segregating blacks and whites, prohibiting black participation in certain activities (such as legal gambling), and protecting the interests of white laborers in certain industries by barring businesses from hiring black workers (making black residents more vulnerable to vagrancy laws). As was typical at the turn of the century, legislatures passed laws that were racially motivated and sought racially disparate consequences. The police enforcing the laws need not necessarily be racist themselves to participate in the racism institutionalized by the State.
The second lesson implied by the Sam Faulkner case is that, whatever the relationship between racism and police brutality in the past or present, eliminating racism will not end police brutality. This is apparent every time an incident of police brutality is carried out by a white cop against a white victim, as was the case recently with the acquittal of an officer who – on camera – executed Daniel Shaver, an unarmed man after forcing him to play a sadistic game of Simon Says. Just as with Sheffield’s murder of Sam Faulkner, racism can explain neither the murder nor the acquittal. In the 1920s, it was undeniably true that criminal trials involving white victims were taken more seriously than those involving black victims, but the 2017 trial over the murder of Daniel Shaver, among other incidents, demonstrates that judges and juries are inclined to side with police – even in cases of the most extreme and unquestionable abuses of power – regardless of the victim’s race.
This is not a denial that racially motivated instances of police brutality still occur (like most people, I am not privy to the inner thoughts of the guilty officers to establish certainty one way or the other). But it is important to remember that solving racism will not solve the problems of police brutality and corruption, or the State’s protection of abusive officers.