The Streets of San Francisco

Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-72

by Christopher Lowen Agee

23 May 2014


Chinatown Entrepreneurs and Police Professionalism

During the early postwar period, business leaders did not press their professionalization campaign any further than was necessary for cutting off payola to City Hall and consolidating their power over the SFRA. San Francisco’s managerial growth proponents railed against the corrupt connections Robinson’s administration maintained with the SFPD leadership, but the police reformers rarely explained how an independent, professional police chief would set policies serving the citizenry’s shared values. This imprecision carried political benefits for professionalism advocates. By allowing various groups of San Franciscans to independently imagine how professionalized police reforms might serve their needs, the downtown reformers gathered a wide range of constituencies under their clean-government banner.

In Chinatown a new generation of Chinese-American businessmen joined the police professionalism movement in a broader campaign for full citizenship rights. Chinatown’s young entrepreneurs hoped that once managerial growth advocates achieved power, they would use professionalism’s emphasis on consolidated, color-blind police authority to grant Chinese Americans honest and equal law enforcement.

During the machine-politics era, the SFPD’s approach to Chinatown diverged further from the principles of police professionalism than its policies in any other area of the city. The department had created the Chinatown detail sometime around 1878 in response to neighborhood tong wars, but large-scale Chinatown gang violence had long since abated. Still, after World War II, the fifteen-member detail remained the SFPD’s only police presence in the neighborhood. An archetype for the core principles and practices of machine-era policing, the Chinatown detail was race conscious, free from day-to-day over-sight, disconnected from the residents it policed, and an integral component of the machine’s payola networks.

The Chinatown detail operated without any formal physical or functional connections to the regular police. Although the neighborhood was mere blocks from the SFPD’s Central Station, the Chinatown detail did not operate out of this district station. Instead, the detail was based in a small, secret Chinatown hideout. The office had a private phone line, but the desk was rarely staffed, so the detail maintained little daily contact with the Hall of Justice. At the same time, official SFPD policy forbade Bureau of Special Services inspectors or Central Station patrol officers from stepping foot into the neighborhood. Chinatown was thus the only residential neighborhood in the entire city not supervised by a district station and the Hall of Justice’s Inspectors Bureau.

The detail’s operational autonomy reflected the SFPD leadership’s bigoted attitudes toward Chinese Americans. The high brass articulated that prejudice when explaining why they allowed the Chinatown detail to forgo standard blue uniforms for stylish suits that made the officers look like “movie detectives.” One official suggested that Chinatown residents were too backward to associate blue uniforms with anything other than the “tyrannical officials of the courts of China.” Another SFPD leader stressed neighborhood insularity and criminality, warning, “In Chinatown the uniform tips your hand. That star shines up very nicely. They can see you coming blocks away… In many cases, such as gambling houses, a lookout or ‘look-see’ is posted outside. Police wearing a uniform would have a hard time gaining evidence.”

SFPD leaders further evinced their dim views toward Chinatown residents by discouraging dialogue between the Chinatown detail and Chinese Americans. During the 1940s and early 1950s, the police force did not require members of the Chinatown detail to possess any facility in Chinese languages and did not include any Chinese-American officers. (The SFPD as a whole did not employ a Chinese-American patrolman until 1964.) Moreover, the department made it impossible for neighborhood residents to contact officers by phone. In the days before two-way radios, San Franciscans living outside of Chinatown called a central communications hub, which then contacted the appropriate district station to arrange an officer response. Chinatown residents could not reach police in this manner because their detail was not attached to a station. The SFPD expected Chinatown residents to stand and wait for the detail to pass by the intersection of Washington and Grant streets or to leave a message at Red’s Bar at the corner of Jackson Street and Beckett Alley. These old-world arrangements enhanced the squad’s cachet with the nation’s true crime magazines, but the Chinese Chamber of Commerce complained that merchants often could not locate police when robberies occurred.

Although machine politicians gave negligible consideration to crime fighting in Chinatown, they did value the neighborhood as a well of graft. Postwar observers estimated that under the Chinatown detail’s watch, the neighborhood gambling industry generated six to seven million dollars in proceeds a year. Wide-eyed machine officials looking to tap into these proceeds jostled with one another for influence over Chinatown detail appointments.

It took Mayor Elmer Robinson nearly his entire first term to gain full control over the Chinatown detail. Shortly before he took office in 1948, the previous administration’s Police Commission tried to curtail the incoming mayor’s access to payola by abolishing the detail. Robinson had no trouble reactivating the squad, but he then found himself wrestling with his police chief, Michael Mitchell. Police details comprised short-term appointments set by the officers’ immediate supervisor, not the mayor’s Police Commission. The Chinatown detail officially reported to the police chief, and thus as soon as Mitchell became chief, he assigned a Chinatown detail leader loyal to himself. Indignant, Robinson attempted to replace Mitchell’s pick with his own police ally, but the chief went to the press and exposed Robinson’s meddling. Noting that authority over Chinatown appointments had “always been a sore spot,” Mitchell charged that Chinatown residents were “in league with the mayor” to “relax” Mitchell’s supposed demand that the neighborhood “stay closed.”


Officer Leo Osuna, a member of the Chinatown squad, overlooks a street in Chinatown. Chinatown squad members wore well-tailored suits rather than the SFPD’s standard blue uniforms. This sartorial choice allowed squad members to strike photogenic poses, but Chinese-American business leaders complained that the suits made it harder for neighborhood residents and visiting tourists to find and communicate with police. August 18, 1955. (Reprinted with permission, Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 2006.029: 138946.0208.)

Ultimately, Mitchell and Robinson established a truce in which detail officers under Mitchell and members of the Bureau of Special Services answering to Robinson’s Police Commission allegedly both exacted concessions from Chinatown gamblers. When Chief Mitchell retired at the end of 1950, Mayor Robinson streamlined the lines of loyalty. His new police chief took power announcing only a single transfer: a Robinson-approved officer at the head of the Chinatown detail.

Since the opening decades of the twentieth century, Chinatown’s entrepreneurs had hoped to earn more equal government services in housing, law enforcement, and host of other areas by reforming their neighborhood’s reputation. San Francisco’s traditional leadership conceived of family men as ideal citizens, but, as Nayan Shah has shown, these same city officials regarded Chinatown as “an immoral and disease-infested slum” occupied by working-class bachelors and female prostitutes. Through the first half of the century, Shah illustrates, Chinatown business owners attempted to overcome this impediment to integration by remaking their neighborhood’s image as a “family society of independent family households.”

Following World War II, Chinatown entrepreneurs found that their public relations efforts were being stymied by mainstream press reports on Chinatown gambling. These articles referred to illegal gaming as both an active Chinatown tradition and a threat (via roving lottery ticket sellers) to the rest of the city. When H. L. Wong, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, later explained his motivation for developing the family-oriented Chinese New Year Festival, he emphasized his desire to rid the neighborhood of its gambling reputation. “I always saw the newspaper headlines ‘Chinatown Gambling Raid’ the pre–Chinese New Year Festival days,” Wong recalled. “I always grumbled, ‘What’s the matter with them? There are so many good things about Chinese and our Chinatown. Why do they play up this gambling?’ ”
These business leaders recognized that wiping away Chinatown’s gambling reputation and securing a family-oriented image for their neighborhood was not simply a project of reforming Chinatown residents and culture. The mission also required that Chinese Americans help clean up the white government in City Hall. Chinese-American spokespersons who wished to decouple Chinatown and gambling in the mainstream’s perception understood that “Chinatown Gambling Raid” headlines persisted because the SFPD refused to professionalize its policing of the neighborhood.

This public relations problem was worsening during the late 1940s as a new generation of local politicians curried downtown support with campaigns against police payola. Repeatedly, these reform efforts against police venality implicated Chinatown. In 1950, for instance, San Francisco district attorney Thomas Lynch took on the machine by recording testimony accusing Chinatown detail officers and Mayor Robinson’s Chinatown campaign organizer of receiving monthly extortion payments amounting to $35,000 from Chinatown gambling operations. That same year Sacramento legislators pursuing a similar clean-government agenda accused members of the Bureau of Special Services—which operated under the influence of the Police Commission and thus the mayor—of collecting Chinatown payoffs as well. One informant for this state inquiry claimed that Inspector George “Paddy” Wafer spent so much time inside a Chinatown gambling house that other customers mistook the detective for the establishment’s owner.

Chinatown’s business elites groused over the negative press, and they saw in police professionalism an opportunity to establish themselves as partners with managerial growth proponents. Young entrepreneurs and professionals in the neighborhood fumed over the fact that “of all the many racial groups in San Francisco the Chinese alone require a special police squad.” However, neighborhood spokespersons did not want to ruffle the feathers of those city officials empowered to abolish the detail with charges of race-conscious discrimination.

Spokespersons found a color-blind language of protest in growth-oriented police professionalism. In 1949, for instance, the president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce responded to a gambling raid conducted by state agents with the careful suggestion that the SFPD could provide white tourists visiting their neighborhood with a better sense of security if it replaced the Chinatown detail with recognizable uniformed police. During the mid-1950s, Dai-Ming Lee, an editor and English-language columnist for the Chinese World, insisted that it was the detail’s autonomous nature—the fact that it was “supreme unto itself ”—that led to its “abuse of authority.” The “plain-clothes sinecures in the Chinatown detail,” Lee stormed, were an anachronism from “the dim, distant past.” Lee noted that two studies—including an “efficiency survey” sponsored by downtown-friendly politicians on the Board of Supervisors—had recommended abolition of the Chinatown detail, and he suggested that Mayor Robinson’s refusal to accept modern management principles stifled broad-based economic growth. “In spite of its lack of advocates,” Lee wrote, “the Chinatown squad continues in existence. We wonder what unseen power makes this possible and what benefits accrue thereby, and to whom. Some day these facts may be revealed, and if and when they are, they should make interesting reading.”

Lee’s insinuations of police corruption and improper management captured the attention of the city’s mainstream press. The same day Lee levied this oblique accusation in the Chinese World, the afternoon-printed San Francisco Examiner included Lee’s quote in its own call for the detail’s elimination.

The San Francisco Chronicle and Police Professionalism

Chinatown’s young entrepreneurs championed police professionalism on the assumption that a professionalized police chief would initiate top-down reforms serving the color-blind interests of the city’s families. However, the professionalism campaign’s vague approach to law enforcement strategies also enabled it to attract constituencies less invested in the city’s traditional family values. During the early 1950s, a collection of young, white San Francisco Chronicle journalists who frequently reveled in the city’s bawdy reputation emerged as the local professionalism campaign’s most public proponents.

The Chronicle entered the 1950s as a third-place afterthought among the city’s four major newspapers. In terms of both circulation and political influence, the San Francisco Examiner towered over the local media landscape. Proclaiming itself the “Monarch of the Dailies,” the Examiner attracted the favor of select politicians by boosting the officials’ public image and supplying them with information critical for the policy-making process. As the political scientist Frederick Wirt explained, passing a single policy item through San Francisco’s convoluted government (the city maintained 65 separate elective offices and 29 boards and commissions) often required local politicians to broker deals with an array of boards, commissions, and departments. Politicians could maximize their powers of persuasion in these negotiations if they understood the interests motivating each of these government bodies. Local journalists, Wirt observed, often possessed just this sort of knowledge, and political elites thus respected reporters as important policy-making allies.

The Examiner used its dominant circulation and news-gathering abilities to win influence in City Hall, then employed that leverage to affect appointments within the SFPD. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, for instance, the mayor’s Police Commission always appointed the chief of police nominated by Bill Wren, the Examiner’s managing editor. In a self-reinforcing fashion, the newspaper then used the loyalty of police officers, who gave the Examiner scoops on newsworthy crimes, to expand its news-gathering prowess over its competitors. “The good old Ex,” a Chronicle editor later grumbled, “owned, body and soul, the police department and the mayor’s office.”

During the early 1950s, a small cluster of ambitious journalists and editors at the San Francisco Chronicle saw an opportunity to challenge the Examiner’s favored position by advocating police professionalism. This campaign took off in earnest in 1952 when the Chronicle’s owners promoted Scott Newhall to the editor’s chair. Newhall had joined the newspaper in 1935 as a photographer and quickly climbed his way into the supervisorial ranks. Between 1952 and 1970, Newhall oversaw the Chronicle’s day-to-day operations and controlled the newspaper’s editorial voice. In a spectacular run, the Chronicle gained ground on the Examiner until it surpassed it in circulation by 1960.

Newhall cut into the Examiner’s sales and political clout with two inter-related strategies. First, the young editor attracted San Francisco readers by developing a reporting style that he felt reflected the readership’s culture. Describing the Chronicle’s editorial approach during the late 1960s, two media scholars wrote, “It is unlikely that there is another group of newspaper executives anywhere in the country—with the possible exception of those running the New York Times—that is so conscious of its audience, and of the effect of its newspaper on that audience.” Monopolizing and unleashing the Bay Area’s best writing talents (including, for most of this period, Herb Caen, the dean of local columnists), Newhall encouraged his writers to convey their own reactions to events in their stories. This approach produced what one Chronicle editor described as a “cult of personality” within the newspaper’s pages.

Newhall undercut the Examiner’s power from a second direction by exposing corruption within the SFPD and advocating for police professionalism via exposés on the “Blue Gang” atop the police force. Newhall hoped these reforms would “liberate the mayor and the police department” from the Examiner’s machinations. The scandal reports also served Newhall’s first goal of projecting his vision of the city’s culture. In the newspaper’s various corruption investigations, the Chronicle repeatedly characterized police payola, rather than the criminal activities permitted by the payoffs, as the true threat to the city’s welfare. The newspaper often portrayed the exposed underworld operations as exciting sources of entertainment. In 1953 the Chronicle series “Tenderloin: The Secret City” spent a week and a half railing against police extortion while introducing its readership to the city’s red-light district with amused winks and nods. Each report came with a boxed glossary defining catchy underworld terms and phrases such as three striper and drop the junk. Like the Chinatown entrepreneurs, the Chronicle hoped to use police professionalism against the city’s traditional machine. But while Chinatown’s entrepreneurs assumed that centralized policing would reinforce the traditional leadership’s avowed mores, some of the Chronicle’s professionalization advocates appeared unconcerned by the prospect of more relaxed cultural codes.

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