By Commander Manny Davila
Have you ever wondered what police work was like in the “old days”? Today’s most veteran officers can talk about their “old days” and policing in the early to mid 1970’s. Recently I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what Phoenix and our police department was like in the early 1950’s. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing former Phoenix Police Officer Albert Whipple. He was one of only three bilingual Mexican-American patrol officers in Phoenix at that time. He was with our department for about three years but he had a much longer law enforcement career.
Al’s mother was born in Sonora, Mexico. At the onset of the Mexican Revolution her father brought the family to the United States. Al’s father was a U.S. Customs Mounted Border Patrol Officer. Al was born “el Cinco de Mayo”, May 5, 1928 in Nogales, Arizona. His mother insisted that he learn to speak, read, and write Spanish as a youngster. He graduated from Nogales High School in 1946. He joined the Army that summer and served in, among other places, Shanghai, China. Discharged in 1948, he enrolled at Arizona State College in Tempe until he was recalled to the service and sent to Korea. Shortly after being discharged in 1952, Al married Victoria Lara from Phoenix, Arizona. Victoria’s family had been in the Valley since 1880 and in Arizona since 1836.
To set the stage for this time period, the 1950 U.S. census showed the city’s population was 106,818, up 63% over 1940. Phoenix had an area of 17.1 square miles, approximately 3 ½ miles long by 5 miles wide. The police department had about 185 employees when Al joined on October 24, 1953.
Al sold insurance in Phoenix for a short time period before learning that the police department was testing and hiring. An officer’s probationary period was six months long and that included three weeks in the classroom. Shortly before graduation, Chief Charlie Thomas told the 16 new recruits that he was cleaning up the department and getting rid of the few bad apples that were still around.
Al’s first day after completing the academy left much to be desired. Leaving the station, first thing in the morning, Al’s training officer pulled in behind Harry Wilson’s Bar on the NE corner of First Avenue and W. Jefferson Street. Upon entering through a rear door, the training officer was recognized by the bartender who poured two shots of whiskey. Al opted not to drink so his training officer downed both drinks. They proceeded to Arden’s Dairy on Jackson Street where the training officer picked up three quarts of milk. Their next stop was the produce market where the training officer proceeded to pick up some lettuce, tomatoes, and celery. Then they went to the bakery at S. Central Avenue and Tonto Street where the training officer picked up some other items. Following that they drove to the training officer’s home where he unloaded his groceries. Finally they went to a restaurant on the SW corner of N. First Street and E. Monroe for a full breakfast. When Al went to pay, his training officer stopped him and, instead, reached over the counter and grabbed some cigars and a couple of packs of cigarettes without paying. All of this was done during the first four hours of the shift and before they went to their beat area.
Al thanks God that he was assigned to another training officer the next day. The first training officer was dismissed from the force a few months later. Al truly believed that Chief Thomas was sincere when he talked about clearing up the police department.
In those days, the patrol officers alternated shifts every two months, which made it fair for everyone. Al almost always worked one of the two busiest beats, eight and sixteen. The time came when Al realized that he as not Joe Louis and that he needed an equalizer for the shifts when he worked alone. His wife’s nephew, who was attending Phoenix Union High School, made for him a 3 ½ foot baton in wood shop class. Officers were issued small saps at the time but Al preferred the baton. Armed with the students wood shop project, Al Whipple became the first Phoenix Police Officer to carry a baton.
Al learned swiftly to never stand in front of doors. One night he received a family fight call on S. 13th Avenue. He walked up to the door and stood to the side when suddenly he heard an explosion that tore about a one foot hole through the door. He drew his revolver, kicked in what was left of the door, and found inside an elderly gentleman sitting in a chair with the shotgun on the floor beside him. He had his face buried in his hands as he attempted to compose himself. His equally elderly wife was berating him for discharging the shotgun. Al was so relieved that he began to laugh. Eventually, he calmed down both individuals. The discharge of the shotgun was an accident, so he left and only completed a Form 5, the predecessor of the Form 36.
On another occasion, Al responded early one morning to a cottage on Fourth Avenue just north of W. Van Buren in reference to a hostage situation. The Sergeant threw a tear gas canister through the front window. Al was standing by the doorway as the suspect fired once through the door before opening it and attempting to escape. The only stitch of clothing he was wearing was one sock. Al tripped him as he ran out the door. The suspect fell on his face and his gun flew forward. Al recalled that the suspect received 25 years in prison.
Al’s most dramatic and dangerous incident occurred on August 20, 1954, at a gun battle at 1932 E. Madison Street. The shooting occurred at 6:30 PM when two officers attempted to serve a city warrant issued by the health department to a subject who had repeatedly refused to move his chickens and chicken coops from this front yard. He met the officers in the front yard, pulled two guns from his waistband and started shooting. The suspect retreated into the house and continued firing his pistols. One slug ripped through Officer James Christian’s upper right arm, into his side, and lodged in his back high on the shoulder. As he fell to the ground, a second bullet hit his left hand. His partner dragged him to the police car and radioed for more help.
Al responded to the scene together with other officers. Al was lying in a prone position as a round hit in front of him and threw dirt on his face. He rolled as more bullets hit around him kicking up more dirt. Then one bullet struck Al’s upper thigh and coursed downward exiting just above his knee. Another bullet tore through the side of his shoe tearing the sole off. Two other bullets tore through his lower pant legs without injuring him. Lieutenant Tipton Freasier helped drag Al to safety. Sergeant Jerry McAlpin was jockeying for position in the driveway of the house next door when he got shot in the left calf.
During the hour-long gun battle a large crowd of curious onlookers remained at a respectable distance. Many of the chickens, caught in the crossfire, gave out death cackles when they stopped bullets. Several officers went in close to hurl tear gas grenades through windows. Stalking the house was difficult because of a cluster of bamboo shoots and the litter of dead and dying chickens in front of the house.
After an hour of firing, stalking, and waiting, Chief Charlie Thomas donned a gas mask and said, “I’m going in!” Two other officers rushed in with the Chief through the tear gas and gun smoke. As they dashed forward, the other officers at the scene provided cover fire.
Inside they found the suspect sprawled near a bed. He had a .45 caliber army style pistol in one hand and a .38 caliber gun under his body. A trail of blood indicated that he was first hit as he backed into the doorway, hit again as he crouched behind a barricade of sacks filled with chicken feed and again as he sprawled by the bed. Six empty ammo magazines were found. One was found outside, three in the house, and two in the suspect’s guns. Police also found more than a dozen loaded magazines in the dead man’s pockets. The three injured officers were hospitalized and all recovered. Al returned to work in 45 days.
In 1956, Al was offered a job with the State of Arizona. At the time the City was paying him $330 a month for a 48-hour week with one midweek day off. He was offered a job that paid $400 a month for a 40-hour week with Saturdays and Sundays off. His “beat” would be the entire state and he would be paid for all his expenses. It was an opportunity too good to pass up! Al Whipple took the job and became Arizona’s first parole officer. He left the department with a sad heart but the new job he got provided more security for him and his wife and their three sons.
Sometime thereafter a second parole officer was hired and he and Al divided the state in half. Al took the southern half. The dividing line was Van Buren Street in Phoenix and the imaginary extension lines of Van Buren to the state border east to New Mexico and west to California. Al later worked in a law enforcement capacity for a federal judge and then for the Navajo Indian Nation in northern Arizona.
Al said he never had a job that he enjoyed as much as when he was a Phoenix police officer. He sincerely believes that all police officers can make a difference in their communities.
I enjoyed my conversations with Al. I discovered we had much more in common than just being Mexican and bilingual. We both grew up less than 100 yards from the Mexican border and we both deeply admire Emiliano Zapata who was a Mexican Revolutionary War hero. I feel very fortunate to have met Al and look forward to continuing our friendship together.