The Mark of a Criminal: “Vag Addicts,” Police Power, and Civil Rights in Postwar America

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. 

In 1950, twenty-eight-year old Bettye Coleman, a black Los Angeleno, was arrested by police for being an “addict” in public. Bettye lived close to the downtown Temple district, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood—and one that the Los Angeles Police Department patrolled more heavily than nearly any other in the city, except for black neighborhoods south and west of downtown.

One afternoon, Bettye and her friends Ray and Manuel sat in a parked car, waiting to spot someone on the street who could sell them heroin. Suddenly, LAPD officers knocked on their door. “What are you doing here?” As Bettye stammered an excuse—“I think we’re having trouble with the car”—the officer reached through the window, grabbed her arm, and forcibly pushed up her sleeve. Revealed underneath were “fresh” hypodermic needle marks from an earlier fix. “Get out,” the officer said. Manuel took off running, but the police pinned Ray to the ground. Both Bettye and Ray were taken into custody. In the interrogation room, officers tried to flip Bettye against Manuel, whom they believed to be a distributor. After discovering that Bettye had no criminal record, the police let her go—with a warning that she should “get out of Temple Street” or would live to regret it. They would “get that little son of a bitch,” Manuel, another way. 

Two years later, Bettye was arrested on the same charge. That time, she went to jail for 90 days. 

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