The Cowboy Cop
Hiram “Hi” Powell worked for both of the agencies that would subsequently merge to form Metro. He began his law enforcement career in 1942 with the Las Vegas Police Department and later moved to the Clark County Sheriff’s Department. He retired from there in 1967, with a total of 25 years of service.
Powell came to Las Vegas in 1940 from Electra, Texas to participate in a rodeo. Twenty-years-old at the time, his forte was bronco riding. After the event, he remained in town. “I never had enough money to leave,” he recalls.
Powell gave up his bronco-busting efforts soon after and found work in the construction business. He tried his hand as a deputy sheriff in 1941, and was assigned to work foot patrol in Pittman now a part of Henderson.
“There was nothing but bars, construction workers and fights,” is how Powell remembers that assignment. He worked alone, and had no radio contact with the department. If he needed a car to transport an arrestee or if he needed backup, he had to get to a telephone and call in the request. That sometimes proved a difficult task if he was in a tussle with a group of rowdy drunks.
After about three months, Powell told the sheriff that he either had to be given some help or he’d have to leave. With no money in the budget to hire additional personnel, the sheriff said the Las Vegas Police Department was hiring, and suggested Powell apply there.
At that time, the LVPD was located on Second Street, right behind the Apache Hotel. The facility included a courtroom, police records section and male and female jails. The men’s jail was known as the “blue room” and the females were housed in the “pink room.”
Powell’s first meeting with Chief of Police Don Borax did not go very well. The two men got into an argument in the chief’s office and a shouting match ensued. “I don’t need this goddamn job anyway,” the Texan said, and started for the door.
Before he could make it across the room, Borax called to him. Powell spun around, ready for more verbal battle. Instead, he was offered a job. “Can you start at 8:00 tomorrow morning?” Borax asked.
Thus began Hi Powell’s sometimes frustrating, sometimes tempestuous, but always rewarding career.
When Powell joined the force, it had about twenty officers. The population of Las Vegas was around 10,000. His blue uniform was furnished, along with a badge and identification card. Officers provided their own guns and leather.
“It was a real poor department,” he says. “They were short of patrol cars. We had to ride for two hours, and then walk for two hours while somebody else used the car.”
The department had no portable radios in those days. However, that didn’t mean that the cops patrolling the downtown area on foot were without any means of communication. In fact, the officers had a rather unique way of finding out if the station needed to reach them. A red light was mounted on top of the Apache Hotel and wired to the station. When the light came on, the patrolman had to call in for his message or assignment. Of course, the efficiency of the system depended on the patrolmen remembering to check for the red light from time-to-time.
“The job was very political back then. The chief served at the pleasure of the mayor and City Council. If they didn’t like the way he parted his hair, they got rid of him,” Powell says. “And every time they fired one, they’d put in what they called an ‘acting’ chief. Some of those guys served as chief three or four different times. I think I worked for nine chiefs in nine years.”
The politics of the job frequently got Powell into trouble. Those with political connections expected to be left alone by the police. If they weren’t, they didn’t hesitate to call their contact and complain. This was a problem that dogged him throughout his tenure with the LVPD. As an example, he cites his stormy relationship with one such character Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Powell recalls his first meeting with the notorious gangster this way: “It was in the mid 1940s, probably ’46 or ‘47. It was early in the morning, and it was in the winter. I remember it being cold and windy. I stopped Siegel for a traffic infraction at East Charleston and Fifth Street. When he handed me his license, there was a $100 bill folded up with it. That was a lot of money at the time, but I dropped the bill on the ground. The last I saw of it, it was blowing down East Charleston. I gave Siegel his ticket and let him go.
“About an hour later I got a radio message to return to the station and report to the chief, George Thompson. He asked me what happened between Siegel and me. After I told him, he fired me. I turned in my badge and ID and went home.
“The next morning Thompson called and asked me to come back to work. He said we had to forget about the past. I told him I didn’t have a badge or ID and hung up. A half hour later he was at my place with my stuff. About a week after that I ran into Siegel and two of his bodyguards outside the Western Union on Fremont Street. Siegel said something about having shown me who was the boss. That didn’t set real well with me, so I slapped the hell out of him. I asked his bodyguards if they wanted a piece of me, but they all took off.”
Surprisingly, there were no repercussions over the incident. But a couple of weeks later, Powell got a call from Rex Bell, who owned a western clothing store on Fremont Street. He said he had something at the store for him and asked him to stop by.
The item Bell had was a new white Stetson hat. “I knew I hadn’t ordered a hat, and I would never order a white one. I asked Bell who paid for it. He said it was compliments of Bugsy Siegel. I took the hat and drove out to the Flamingo. I found Siegel in the blackjack pit talking to the pit boss. I put the hat on him and shoved it down over his ears. I told him: ‘You bought it … you wear it.’ Then I turned around and walked out.”
Powell had his share of difficulties in dealing with the lesser-known hoodlums, too. He liked to roust them and try to get them out of town. These encounters often resulted in his being called on the carpet by the chief. Not one to concede to the bad guys, he came up with a way around the problem.
“I’d get up real early, around 2:00 or so, and take a ride downtown. I’d round up a couple of the hoods and take them to jail. But I had a deal worked out with the jailer that these guys wouldn’t get booked. He’d hold them until dawn and then turn them loose. There was no record that they were ever in the jail. With any luck, they’d grab the next transportation out of town when they got out.
“I eventually got called on that, too. When the chief asked me about it, I denied everything. I asked him where the records were that said I was arresting these guys. Of course, there weren’t any. I wasn’t really arresting them anyway; I was just rousting them. But you could do a lot of things back then that you could never do now,” he explained.
To get away from the politics of the LVPD, Powell switched uniforms in the early 1950s and went to work for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department. By then, a public employee retirement system was in place that allowed him to make the move without losing any of his service time. Although the actual job of policing was pretty much the same, working for an elected official made all the difference.
After retiring, Hi Powell went back to work for Metro as a part-time civilian employee, assigned in the Detective Division at the City Hall complex.