Forty years ago this month, The Seattle Times published a series of stories about Pioneer Square tavern operators who complained that they were being shaken down by the police. Local cops entrusted with preventing crime were instead engaged in it, taking payoffs in return for tolerating illegal gambling, after-hours drinking, or people simply doing business.
The city was startled, and seemingly incredulous. The police chief juggled some personnel and appointed a panel of outstanding citizens to investigate. But nothing happened.
It took nearly five years of press exposure, political upheaval, grand-jury inquiries and criminal trials for Seattle to acknowledge and dismantle a system of corruption that had festered for decades. In the end, we learned that scores of police officers had been extorting money from businesses throughout the city, then passing the proceeds up the chain of command and across the street to City Hall.
Today, those events are all but forgotten too stale to qualify as current events, too recent to be considered history. Even local officials know little or nothing about a corrosive “tolerance policy” that, just a generation ago, shook Seattle’s very foundations.
But short memories only increase the risk that we will repeat our worst mistakes. The chronic lesson of the tolerance policy was that a city, a business or a society can easily become comfortable with corruption, and when that happens, it takes a determined effort by the press and by reform-minded citizens to root it out and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Seattle’s long history of corruption had its roots in a seemingly virtuous impulse to control low-level vice. State and local laws dating to Prohibition kept bars closed on Sundays and limited gambling to low-stakes cardrooms and charity bingo games. Those laws conflicted with the climate of a port city, where citizens and visitors alike wanted to drink and gamble.
Over time, the city developed an unwritten tolerance policy. Bars and clubs could break the rules for a price. Local beat cops, vice detectives and, ultimately, local officials profited by accepting payoffs from businesses in return for ignoring illegal or after-hours drinking and gambling.
What may have begun as isolated bribes going back at least to the 1930s devolved into a highly organized system of shakedowns. Beat cops collected payoffs from bars, taverns and clubs, usually just after the first of the month. Each officer pocketed half the take, and passed the other half along to his sergeant, who took his cut, and passed the rest up the chain of command to the chief, and across the street to City Hall.
Businessmen had a choice. They could play the system, pay the police, and reap the profits. Or they could opt out, in which case the beat cops would make it difficult to do even legitimate business, checking patrons’ IDs or writing jaywalking tickets. Most businessmen opted to pay.
While it was never proved that the prosecutor received money, he never acted against the system even after the press finally began to report what was going on.
Those press accounts eventually spurred a response. In 1970, a group of reform-minded citizens encouraged me to run against King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, a former Husky football star and 20-year incumbent who was the closest thing Seattle had to a political “boss.” He was called “Chuck” by everyone and “Fair Catch” by critics who believed he never filed tough cases.
In June 1970, I visited Carroll as a courtesy to tell him that I would run against him in the Republican primary. He sat at the head of a long, polished conference table, flanked by his finance chairman and the Republican county chairman, all equally incredulous that he could be challenged by a 32-year-old lawyer who had never tried a criminal case. I had as my “second” a civic leader and friend of Carroll’s, Mort Frayn, a wonderful man and one-time candidate for mayor.
To this day, I don’t know how much Carroll knew about the payoff system. But he did not understand the degree to which press coverage of the tolerance policy had undermined his support from King County voters. Three months later, we won the primary by a 2-to-1 vote. We squeaked through the final against Ed Heavey, and in 1971 the Superior Court convened the grand jury that had been demanded by civic groups and the press.
The grand jury and subsequent trials were a painful but necessary process. Over the spring and fall of 1971, Seattle finally began to understand how its legal and political system had been corrupted by years of payoffs.
Carroll and other local officials were indicted by the grand jury, but were not convicted. Handicapped by complexity and by officers who were reluctant to testify against their fellow police, we were not able to prove they were involved in a conspiracy.
More importantly, the grand jury and criminal trials exposed and effectively dismantled the system. Since then, Seattle police and local officials have had their share of controversy, but there has never been an allegation of corruption.
We forget those events at our peril. The recurring lesson is that government attempts to regulate human activity be it drinking, gambling, drugs or whatever must be based on public consensus and carried out transparently and openly. If there is no consensus, as with after-hours drinking in the ’50s and ’60s, there is an enormous temptation for police and public officials to “wink” at violations, and the winking can easily devolve into corruption.
Such temptations exist today in the form of casinos, slot machines and other forms of gambling, where the profits dwarf what was paid to beat cops 40 years ago.
That danger increases as a government, or a private business, becomes comfortable with and dependent on corruption something we’ve seen repeatedly, from Watergate to Enron and Jack Abramoff. Evidence presented at the recent sentencing of Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling showed how much damage corporate corruption can inflict on shareholders, employees and on society at large.
I’m sure we will never eliminate corruption altogether, but we can minimize the risks by encouraging new generations of reform-minded citizens to run for office or serve as watchdogs. All of us should remember what we went through those many years ago, and remain determined that it not happen again.
Chris Bayley is the former King County prosecuting attorney, a member of the Discovery Institute Board of Directors, and currently chairman of Stewardship Partners, an environmental group based in Seattle.