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Officer John M. Brinnegar
(1899 – Sept. 29, 1928)

After decades of effort by temperance groups, including the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, to stop the consumption of alcohol in the United States, the U.S. Congress voted in late 1917 to approve the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." (Notably, the 18th Amendment did not specifically prohibit the consumption of intoxicating liquors.)

On Jan. 16, 1919, when Nebraska became the 36th of the 48 states to vote in favor of the amendment -- the required three-fourths majority of states -- it was officially ratified and became law. Eventually, legislatures in all 48 states voted on the amendment, and all approved, with the exceptions of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

To further define and clarify the details, requirements and enforcement of the 18th Amendment, Congress passed legislation called the National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act. The new law would go into effect at one second after midnight, on Jan. 17, 1920; the first violation came less than an hour later when six armed men stole $100,000 worth of "medicinal whiskey" from the freight cars of a train in Chicago.

In the first six months of Prohibition, the federal government reported more than 7,000 violations of the Volstead Act. The following year, there were more than 29,000 reported violations.

From the start, the Volstead Act was a difficult law to enforce. There were not nearly enough police officers or federal agents to enforce the law. From a legal standpoint, there were challenges to the definition of "intoxicating liquor." Initially, it was defined as any beverage with 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, but the Bureau of Internal Revenue rejected that definition, effectively legalizing home wine-making.

The Volstead Act also allowed physicians to prescribe medicinal whiskey for patients, but limited the amount. The American Medical Association argued that the legislature should not be allowed to place limits on any therapeutic treatment or medication, including alcohol.

And, with more than a year to prepare, many wealthy citizens and distributers were able to buy out the entire inventories of alcohol retailers, wholesalers and saloons, and stockpile alcohol for legal home consumption -- or illegal sale. President Woodrow Wilson -- who vetoed the Volstead Act, but his veto was over-ridden by Congress -- had his own personal stash of alcohol at the White House, as did his successor, Warren G. Harding, when he moved in in 1921.

The main problem with the law and its enforcement, however, was that a large number of citizens -- including wealthy and powerful members of society, elected lawmakers, even police officials and judges -- enjoyed drinking alcohol, and they were willing take the risks and flout the law. Within a week of the law going into effect, small portable stills were available for sale across the country. Illegal speakeasies, private clubs and secret cocktail parties could be found in cities throughout the country, supplied by bootleggers, and protected by organized crime.

Many of the bootleggers and organized crime figures, notably Chicago's Al Capone, became wealthy and powerful because of Prohibition, and they received the sympathy, support and even admiration of otherwise-respectable citizens who just wanted to enjoy a drink. Prohibition is often credited for the rise in power, wealth and influence of organized crime across the country.

After 14 years, in January 1933, Congress passed the Blaine Act to repeal the 18th Amendment. The Blaine Act, which became the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was ratified by the minimum number of states before the end of the year, and Prohibition officially ended on Dec. 5. 1933. (Utah was the 36th of the 48 states to vote in favor of the amendment, which was eventually approved by 38 states. Maine and Montana voted against the amendment, and eight states took no formal action.)

During those 14 years of Prohibition, however, police officers were still sworn to uphold the law, whatever the public sentiment, from the president on down. That meant battling with organized crime, intercepting alcohol shipments and deliveries, finding and closing down illegal distilleries, and raiding and shutting down speakeasies.

On the afternoon of Sept. 29, 1928, LAPD Officers John M. Brinnegar and Henry C. McRae, both 30, were sent to a café at 1609 Sawtelle Blvd., to investigate reports that illegal alcohol was being sold. The café was owned by a husband and wife who lived a few blocks away at 2033 Butler Ave.

At the café, the officers discovered illegal alcohol, and the wife, who had been arrested two months earlier in July 1928 and fined $75 for possession of liquor, was placed under arrest. Brinnegar and McRae left the wife at the café in the custody of Policewoman Ghita C. Vaughan, and went to the couple's home to search for the husband.

When they arrived, there was no one home, but the officers found several gallons of illegal liquor. Brinnegar stayed at the home while McRae went back to the café to take the wife to the Sawtelle police station.

About 30 minutes later, McRae returned to the home, and saw the husband's car parked at the curb in front of the house. Inside, he found Brinnegar and the husband on the floor of the dining room. Both had been shot, and the smell of gunsmoke was still in the air. Brinnegar was dead, and the husband was critically injured. A neighbor reported hearing five or six gunshots before McRae arrived at the home.

Before he died, the husband, who had previously vowed that he would shoot any police officer who attempted to arrest his wife again, told police he and Brinnegar had shot each other, and that he had shot the officer first. Brinnegar was hit in the chest, with the bullet hitting a lung and severing his windpipe. Despite his injuries, Brinnegar was able to return fire, and wrestle the gun away from his assailant before both of them collapsed on the dining room floor.

Brinnegar, a member of the LAPD for five years, left his widow, Clara Krebs Brinnegar, and two young daughters -- Dorothy, 9, and Phyllis, 3. He's buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery, with the epitaph, "Died Doing His Duty."

Upon the recommendation of LAPD Chief James E. Davis, Brinnegar was awarded the LAPD's Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor, which was presented to Brinnegar's widow.

LAPD officers also raised $3,600 (nearly $55,000 today) to pay off Brinnegar's home, at 1248 W. 78th St. The deed to the home was presented to Mrs. Brinnegar at the department's annual Christmas party in 1928.

Brinnegar's sign is located at the southwest corner of Mississippi and Butler avenues.

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