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1925-1927: COMMISSIONER BRIBED INTO IGNORING BOOZE JOINTS

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Liquor establishments bribed cops to look the other way.
  • Liquor establishments bribed cops to look the other way.

When Charles Hedger took over as Spokane's public safety commissioner in 1925, he was intent on protecting the people — particularly, their God-given right to drink booze.

The only problem? Booze was illegal at the time. Law enforcement, during Prohibition, was supposed to make sure that people had no access to alcohol.

Hedger made sure the opposite was true.

Soon after Hedger was put in charge of the police department, citizens noticed that the police were taking it easy on liquor establishments. Newspapers at the time questioned why feds and the sheriff's office — but not the city police — were willing to raid speakeasies.

In January 1926, within a year of Hedger being named commissioner, thousands of citizens signed a petition calling for him to be recalled, to no avail.

"He was well-connected and he had a lot of friends," says local historian and former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte.

But as soon as Spokane County Sheriff Floyd Brower started asking questions, Hedger's days as police commissioner were numbered.

The sheriff's office discovered that Spokane establishments were linked to a gambling circuit that extended to Seattle and Portland. The sheriff and county prosecutor also found that Spokane police officers had been ordered to "lay off" liquor taverns. One officer said that he had been told to keep order on the streets, but that their "duties ended there."

Spokane officers who actually wanted to do their jobs were punished by being given undesirable assignments. As one prosecutor stated at the time, "Officers have stood in this room and told me that they had been treated in a shabby manner because they insisted on enforcing the law."

There was a simple explanation for why police gave liquor taverns a pass: They were bribing the cops to look the other way. Over the course of 18 months, establishments had paid a sum of $100,000 for protection — mostly in monthly installments of between $75 and $200.

By contrast, Sheriff Brower could not be so easily bought. At one point, according to an account in Police Files: The Spokane Experience, Brower arrested two men who were transporting a coal car containing $10,000 worth of liquor. One of the men offered the sheriff a $500 bribe to ignore the crime, but Brower declined.

By January 1927, before the news broke about speakeasies paying for protection, Hedger had resigned, declaring that he no longer wanted to embarrass the city council. However, he wasn't ready to leave a position of power entirely. Being a reasonable man, Hedger proposed a compromise: He would humbly step down as commissioner and assume the role of mayor, trading positions with then-mayor Charles Fleming.

The city council approved a motion for Fleming to become public safety commissioner, but Hedger didn't get to become mayor. Instead, he was made commissioner of public utilities.

Hedger would later be indicted on "maintenance of public nuisance" and 11 different counts of conspiracy, sales, possession, manufacturing or transportation of liquor. Others were indicted as well, including a bootlegger, a cigar man, a barber, a hotel operator and a liquor dealer.

But in the end, Hedger and the rest of the cops who were charged got off scot-free.

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