Camarillo, California. Summer,1990. John St. John and I had been working on a chapter for way too long. I suggested we have an iced tea break, but first, I had a question.
“I looked through some of the photographs you gave me and wondered – what was the deal with the fedora hats? You wore one at birthday parties, anniversaries, media events…”
“The fedora hat is a tradition that goes back to the late 40s,” he said. “Two guys from the Robbery-Homicide Division started wearing straw fedora hats to work, then two more joined them, so they became known as the ‘Hat Squad.’ They were all over six feet and tough as nails—no one messed with them. I’ve got a photo of the Robber-Homicide guys in our fedoras that’s real classy. I’ll send it to you. We’re all proud of that tradition.”
I researched articles to find the best description of the Hat Squad. I found this – a post is taken from police historian James Bultema’s book: Guardians of the Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department posted on March 13, 2018.
“Word went through the underworld that they were tough. No question about it. They were intimidators just by their appearance. The hat was their trademark,” said Lt. Dan Cooke in 1987.
“It has been said, ‘you are what you drive.’ Perhaps, but for four Los Angeles Police Detectives, it was the hat you wore. From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the ‘Hat Squad’ had a reputation that had robbers and mobsters’ knees, knocking out of fear of these sizable men. All were over six feet tall and collectively weighed more than half a ton. All would become legends on the LAPD. As one hard-nosed detective said, ‘They were the most impressive group I ever knew in my 25 years with the department. They were tough with criminals, but very compassionate people, respected in the underworld.’
“The Hat Squad had its genesis when Clarence A. “Red” Stromwall and Max Herman began wearing identical snap-brim straw hats to work. A few years later, in 1952, detective’s Ed Benson and Harry Crowder joined the team and donned their hats. Eventually, the fedoras became a cause, and anyone who dared to wisecrack about them was met with a glaring stare that put the fear of prison in many a criminal.
“Their reputation was not unlike the one that ran the gamut across the United States in the 1920s and 30s. It was then that a robber in New York could be talking with a robber from Chicago. If either of them mentioned the ‘Bucket of Blood,’ the other knew he was referring to the small room in Los Angeles where robbery squad detectives used to hold discussions with hold-up men by punctuating each question with a punch in the mouth.”
I got the photo of the RHD Hat Squad a few days later and had to admit they were sharp, looking dudes. Later, at one of St. John’s birthday parties, I snapped this photo of John in his fedora that captures the man himself: Classy, VO in one hand, and sunglasses. WOW!