In “Seattle Justice,” author and former prosecutor Christopher T. Bayley tells the engrossing true story of an era of rampant corruption in the Seattle Police Department.

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‘Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle’

by Christopher T. Bayley

Sasquatch, 240 pp., $24.95

Seattle has a reputation for clean government, fairness (to the point of near-dysfunction), and progressive politics. Municipal corruption, seedy cops and crooked prosecutors taking payoffs are things that, in our collective memory, happen in decaying East Coast cities. But not so long ago, right here on the shores of Puget Sound, the Seattle Police built a payoff system equal to the worst of any East Coast protection racket. It all came crashing to a stop through the efforts of a band of young progressive lawyers, intent on challenging the system. And, implausibly, they won.

Christopher Bayley, in his new book “Seattle Justice,” tells the engrossing story from street level up. Seattle, over the course of 100 years, developed an ornate system of tolerating illegal gambling, unlicensed bars and prostitution, all in exchange for cash payments from illegal establishments to crooked police. The payoffs were passed along up the chain to the highest levels of the police department.

Then-King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll was a 22-year incumbent, deeply entrenched and utterly uninterested in challenging the system or even questioning it. Carroll dominated Republican party politics and in the 1950s and 1960s was considered by some to be the most powerful man in Seattle and King County. The story of his fall and the collapse of the payoff system is as fascinating as it is surprising to modern ears.

Author appearances

Christopher T. Bayley

The author of “Seattle Justice” will appear at:

• 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27 at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).

• 7 p.m. Thursday Oct. 29 at Village Books in Bellingham; free (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).

• 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5, available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.

Bayley tells the story with historical context and a fine eye for detail. But, of course, he should know. Bayley himself took on Carroll in the Republican primary in 1970 and not only defeated him but promptly indicted him, and numerous others. Bayley was aided by a rising group of young progressive Republicans (yes, there used to be such a thing as a “progressive Republican” in Seattle, now an endangered species, listed just below the spotted owl) including Tom Alberg, Norm Maleng, Cam Hall, Bruce Chapman, Sam Reed, then-Governor Dan Evans and newly-elected Attorney General Slade Gorton.

Bayley mounted an impressive campaign, winning first the Republican nomination and then defeating Lem Howell, the Democratic candidate. It didn’t hurt that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer managed to tail and photograph Carroll secretly meeting with Ben Cichy, the so-called “Pinball King” who operated the Far West Novelty Company. Far West held the county’s sole license to lease pinball machines, which raked in millions. The photograph of the two men meeting in a darkened car, published on the paper’s front page, shocked the city.

After winning the election, Bayley promptly shut down the payoff system and launched a widespread investigation and series of prosecutions. Although he had limited success in obtaining convictions, he turned a page in Seattle history by definitively ending the payoff system and transforming the County Prosecutor’s office from a place of corrupt partisan cronyism to what it is today: a widely admired model of integrity and competence.

Seattle’s modern police department is, at the risk of stating the obvious, hardly perfect. Police beatings, shootings and violence, particularly against minority members of the community, have not only outraged the city but appropriately brought federal oversight. But one problem it doesn’t have is a citywide protection racket and payoff scheme.

Bayley’s short first-person history is a compelling read and a vivid reminder that Seattle wasn’t always the sparkling technological machine that it is now. In fact, not so long ago, it was something quite different.