We begin the pilot by showing how the Trio came into being and then we show how the Trio stopped the assassination of the Olympic Champion Jesse Owens.
A LOOK AT THE REAL-LIFE KING COLE TRIO, IN 1940’S HARLEM
In the colorful, vibrant, wartime Harlem of the 1940's a flying squad of three tough, brazen, uncorrupt black cops fought the Italian-American Mafia and their local black cohorts, as one leg of an effort to prove the worth of having NYC black cops on the street. Even greater hurdles than the Mafia for this trio to overcome however, were the racism of the NYPD and the corrupt cops who were in league with the racketeers. Criminals, gang members and their ilk learned to fear these three uniform cops, while Harlem citizens came to love and admire them enough to affectionately dub them 'The King Cole Trio.'
In real life they were fast with their hands and with the short wooden billy-clubs they carried rather than nightsticks. Their arrival at a fist- or knife-fight in a bar or on the sidewalk was described by one bystander as, “A sight to behold. Three big cops in uniform — all colored, mind you” — emerging from a car, billy-clubs in hand, the bad guys suddenly scrambling away amidst cries of "It's the Trio!"
They knew how to cut corners if the situation called for it —if they needed surprise-access to an apartment during an investigation they might light a little fire of wet newspapers in the hallway, fan smoke under the door, shout, "Fire! Everybody out!" then burst in when the door was opened.
One of their memorable bits of policing occurred while on a Ten PM coffee break (which was permitted regularly if the police radio was silent. Police radios of the day were one-way only — the car could only receive). The TRIO were having coffee with other cops at the 129th Street Stable, the NYPD Mounted Unit’s location. A "Robbery-in-progress" call came over the stable's one-way receiving unit with an address the Trio recognized as a Mafia bookmaking-bank headquarters. When they dashed to their car they discovered two flat tires, and realized it had been done to keep them from responding. They quickly commandeered three horses and galloped down the middle of Lenox Avenue as auto traffic swerved to the curbs, in time to nail several of the black holdup men.
A much bigger victory for the TRIO occurred in early 1945, when racial-barrier-breaking, black Olympic winner Jesse Owens was visiting Harlem and the Trio prevented a rooftop assassin, rifle in hand, from shooting him. (The incident, described in more detail on Page 21 of this document, will make a terrific episode.)
Another notable victory for the Trio was their significant part in dealing with the huge Harlem Riot of 1943. (The Riot is described in detail on Page 22 of this document.)
WHY AND HOW THE REAL-LIFE TRIO WAS FORMED
Racism was as rampant in the NYPD as it was in society at large, and policing throughout the city was so aggressive as to be illegal today; these were the days of the "Third Degree," long before Miranda Warnings or a NYPD Civilian Review Board. Cops routinely accepted payoffs as their due (not surprising; $1,200 per year was the NYPD starting salary — while $1,900 per year was the average salary of an American worker).
Nowhere was policing more aggressive or payoffs more common than in Harlem, and nowhere was there more resentment on the part of law-abiding citizens and more tension between those citizens and the white cops on their streets. Situations would arise in which white cops were perceived to use excessive force and exhibit enormous disrespect to black citizens of Harlem, then a poor but stable neighborhood rather than the ghetto it would morph into beginning in the 1950's with the proliferation of heroin.
There were far more white cops than black. Beat cops walked their beats singly. Patrol-car cops rode in pairs, generally both white, occasionally one-white-one-black, rarely, if ever, a pair of black cops.
The Trio was formed at the behest of a white NYPD officer who lacked any racist sentiments. He came up with the idea of a ‘flying squad’ of three carefully selected, experienced black cops riding with a supervising white Sergeant in a beat-up old car with no P.D. markings, simply cruising Harlem on call via the one-way radio of the day, ready to respond to situations that threatened to become racially explosive, during which the white sergeant would hang back while the Trio dealt directly with the problem. This initial "black-on-black" experiment proved highly successful from the start — these three cops knew good guys from bad guys, and their frequent rough treatment of the bad guys was just fine with local residents, who enjoyed observing them at work. While cruising they would, of course, respond to law breaking of any sort, and they soon proved to be incredibly effective in non-racial situations as well; since this was "their neighborhood" they saw plenty that was ignored by white cops and they handled it much better. Everyday problems such as noisy and disruptive crap games in an alley between buildings would normally result in a duo of white cops responding to a caller's complaint, accepting from the players a few-dollar bribe plus a promise to "tone it down," then leaving the scene, whereupon the game would continue noisily. When it was the Trio who responded no money changed hands and if the game reconstituted a while later the offenders "caught a beating," which was just what the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood approved of.
They took it upon themselves to break up clubhouses and confiscate the guns, which were turned in for destruction. Few arrests were made of young persons who had no criminal record; a good swift kick in the ass was the punishment, which they believed helped straighten out many kids. All in all, they had a disdain for petty arrests; why give a colored kid a record, wasn't it tough enough for a young black man to get a job without one?
It wasn't all violent solutions though; both prior to and after the formation of the Trio, one of them sometimes arrested a neighborhood kid whom he considered wayward but not criminal, and he would then bail the kid out and bring him home for the night for a family dinner, a place to sleep, and a heavy-duty lecture plus some later follow-up.
These cops were out to serve the good folks of Harlem, and those good folks believed the Trio was doing just fine.
SOME ASPECTS OF HARLEM IN THE 1940's
Its population was about a million. Harlem was not only a neighborhood but a symbol of black cultural success and the center of black culture for African Americans as a result of the recent "Harlem Renaissance." (Snippets and references to the “Renaissance,” generally considered to have ended in the mid-1930’s, will occur in episodes throughout the series).
A dozen clubs (such as the Savoy Ballroom) still flourished, with the residue of the vibrancy and flavor of Harlem's recent heyday, when, as Lorenz Hart's lyrics said, "...she won't go to Harlem in ermine and pearls..." (The music and dancing in the clubs will be present often in the pilot and the episodes.)
As part of the city at large it was governed by the colorful and forceful Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (The Little Flower) whose Police Commissioner was Lewis Valentine. LaGuardia was fond of reading comic strips over the radio for little children, with what one newspaper described as his "lusty swaggering and robust histrionics." (In several episodes, we will hear some of this, and see him on screen.) He was also fond of being photographed smashing ‘one-arm bandits’ (slot machines) with a sledgehammer.
A major event was the 1943 Harlem Riot. (The Riot and its causes are described later in this document: Page 22).