Street Stories The Call Box

The Call Box: A Common Law Divorce

By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD      

For: Maura, Mary, Anne, Megan and Bill Fitzgerald

If I had to guess I would imagine the average age of the officer out there in the black and white right now would be mid 20’s. This is totally unscientific and based only on observation.

However, it was not always so. My first year in patrol was 1957. The PD was populated with returning WWII vets and both of my partners (teachers) were ex-military and probably in their 40’s as seemingly most of the department. Officers looked like what you would imagine a copper should look like. Something from a 40’s black and white crime movie. Large, tough and no nonsense. This was the era of the hat squad and in my opinion,  it was these older uniforms and detectives that made the LAPD what it is today and earned the reputation as the “Best of the Best.”

Chief William H. Parker spoke at my graduation and his words still ring true. Paraphrased, he said, “You now inherit the good name and are part of a very well-respected organization. You stand on the shoulders of giants.” Without actually saying so, we were told not to “f**k it up.”

My partners were Ward Fitzgerald and Hal Brasher. Both vets and looking back I consider myself a very lucky man to draw two of the best. They were very much alike and (if this makes sense) very different. Both were soft spoken, and I never heard either raise his voice or lose his temper. They never lectured or preached but let me learn by example. They naturally shared experiences and tips and I felt like a little leaguer hanging out with the N.Y. Yankees.

Hal had a great sense of humor and shared stories. Ward was always cheerful and in good spirits, quieter than Hal but when he spoke you listened because he had something to say. Both had a way with people. Hal, smiling and kind of easy going while Ward had a very calming manner about him which lowered most semi-hostile situations. 

Our patrol area was the northwest corner of the old University Division (3A15). A residential/business mix, old, poor and more than our share of crime. Despite this I felt most of the residents were hardworking, law abiding, God-fearing citizens. 

One fairly common call was, “see the man/woman, family dispute.” We were expected to act as marriage counselors. This is the story of one such call.

Working with Ward we responded and found the couple to be elderly, polite and respectful to the law. 

Usual practice was to separate them, speak quietly and hope to defuse the situation before it could turn violent. They listened politely and then said that they just didn’t think they could continue living together. 

Ward gave the usual pitch about seeking professional help or in the extreme, divorce, etc.

Their answer was a classic. They couldn’t divorce because they never married. They were “common law.”

{ASIDE} Common law briefly means living together and holding yourself out as a married couple resulted after a while in a “common law” relationship. It was a routine situation for the time and place, but too complicated to discuss here. 

By this time in my training process I had learned to let nothing I saw or heard surprise me. 

Wards statement did. He told them that police officers were permitted by law to perform “common law divorces.” 

I was sent to the car to retrieve the Vehicle Code. It was the dimensions of the Readers Digest but about 2-3 inches thick. 

In bold print on the cover were the words VEHICLE CODE of the STATE OF CALIFORNIA. Holding his thumb over the word “Vehicle” he let them see the rest of the title.

If they wished to go through with this, he told them they would place their left hands on the book holding the right hand up. At this point Ward rattled off some very impressive mumbo-jumbo. Did they wish to proceed? Oh, by the way, one of you has to leave the house and never return. They conferred and decided they would try to work it out. 

Later in the car I commented on his expert flim-flammery. His answer: “We kept the peace and did no harm, right?”

That was pure Ward, my teacher and friend.

RIP Sir.