The Streets of San Francisco

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

by Christopher Lowen Agee

23 May 2014


Managerial Growth Advocates and the Police Professionalism Coalition

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, San Francisco supervisor George Christopher drew together Chinatown’s entrepreneurs, the Chronicle’s young staff, and a range of other constituencies to form a broad and powerful political coalition around the issue of police professionalism. The son of Greek immigrants and a product of San Francisco’s working-class South of Market neighborhood, Christopher amassed a small fortune in the dairy industry prior to World War II. In 1945 the “wavy-haired dairyman” stepped into the political arena with a run for the Board of Supervisors. Because he lacked strong connections within the city’s patronage networks, he found it easy to campaign against them. Christopher’s clean-government message won him a seat on the board, and from there Christopher played, according to one supporter, “the role of the young Turk, charging headlong at every municipal sin he could unearth.”

Christopher aimed most of his fire at the venal ties binding the underground economy, the SFPD, and the Robinson administration. Similar to Lee, he insisted that corrupt policing failed to serve either the citizenry’s financial interests or its social mores. When machine-politics defenders claimed that tolerance for gambling and prostitution benefited San Franciscans by luring convention dollars into the city, Christopher scoffed, “Some people say… that an open town would create prosperity. But… prosperity doesn’t mean prosperity for a half-dozen gamblers and racketeers. It is only prosperity when all the men, women and children of San Francisco are in it.” Machine politics, Christopher further intimated, threatened the family. “All these so-called open town elements care about,” Christopher warned, “is the fast buck. They don’t care where they get it—whether it’s from your daughter or the kid next door.”

Through police professionalism Christopher hoped both to illustrate the efficacy of his managerial governing style and to take the first steps toward downtown redevelopment. An honest chief with the authority to end the unscrupulous relationship between the mayor’s office and the Hall of Justice, Christopher vowed, would free city officials to serve the citizenry’s supposed common interests. He promised that these new circumstances would allow expert planners in City Hall to lower tax rates, clear slums, revivify the port, and draw Major League baseball into the city. By contrast, Christopher said very little about what the police chief would do with his newfound freedom from payola. Voters were unbothered by this haziness; in 1949 and 1953, Christopher received more votes for supervisor than any other candidate (an astounding 73 percent of the electorate voted for him in the latter election), and the young politician served as the board’s president for the first half of the 1950s.

In 1955 Christopher ran for mayor against George Reilly, a union-friendly machine Democrat whom one Christopher supporter labeled “an old-time fixture of the city’s political trough.” (Because San Francisco maintained a partisan election format, Christopher could avoid compromising his common-good posturing with a party identification. He finally introduced himself as a Republican in 1958 when he ran for United States Senate.) Christopher placed police reform at the top of his campaign platform, and with the backing of downtown business leaders, the Chronicle, and Chinatown’s young entrepreneurs, he won the 1955 election by a greater margin than any candidate in San Francisco history. Understanding police reform as the key to his growth agenda, the mayor-elect anticipated, “The success of my administration depends a great deal on the success of the Police Department.”

Christopher looked to consolidate police power in the hands of an honest police chief, and an outside raid by federal Treasury agents against six bookmaking establishments, conveniently conducted three days before his inauguration, provided him with his opportunity. After inveighing against corruption in the department-wide assembly at Commerce High School, Christopher brought together representatives from the Examiner and, for the first time, the Chronicle for a meeting to choose a new police chief. Christopher and his advisors emerged from the gathering with a selection that thundered through the SFPD’s command ranks. Traditionally, the chief was chosen from among the SFPD’s pool of captains, but Christopher’s Police Commission now selected Inspector Francis “Frank” Ahern, an officer with a patrolman’s civil service rank. Chief Ahern then doubled down on this break with custom by tapping Thomas Cahill, another patrolman-ranked inspector, as his deputy chief.

Ahern was the San Francisco police officer most associated with professionalism. During the early 1950s, politically savvy officers across America were reaching out to up-and-coming managerial growth advocates through vigorous campaigns against potential sources of graft. In Philadelphia, for instance, Frank Rizzo won a name for himself among professionalizers through his drives against prostitution and gambling rackets. In 1967 he was appointed Philadelphia’s police commissioner. In San Francisco, Ahern earned his professionalism bona fides in a similar manner. During the late 1940s, District Attorney Edmund “Pat” Brown was busy establishing himself as a friend of managerial growth advocates through a drive against abortion clinics operating under the sanction of corrupt police officers. Brown needed a police officer willing to break ranks and conduct his raids, and he found an eager ally in Inspector Ahern. Ahern then captured the imagination of the press when, during his bust of the city’s largest abortion clinic, he turned down an offer for a $280,000 payoff.

Following the clinic crackdown, Ahern continued burnishing his reputation in the SFPD’s elite homicide squad. He hand-selected the young and promising Cahill as his partner, and the duo made headlines with their investigations of gangland murders. In 1950 they earned national attention for their testimony before Senator Estes Kefauver’s Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. The senators were so impressed with Ahern’s and Cahill’s grasp of national organized crime networks, criminal enterprises with little presence in San Francisco, that the committee borrowed the two officers for the next six months as it continued touring other parts of the country.

San Francisco’s machine officials attempted to use and contain Ahern during the early 1950s. When the SFPD’s police chiefs needed to respond to corruption scandals with short-term drives, they turned Ahern and Cahill loose. In November 1955, however, Ahern recognized in Mayor Christopher’s election a chance to vault over his commanders. He thus accepted a secret invitation from federal Treasury agents to participate in their January 1956 gambling house raids. After Ahern then received his appointment as chief, he quickly established his authority over his former commanding officers with a massive shake-up. Most dramatically, Ahern transferred his politically formidable former supervisor, the chief of inspectors, to a sleepy “fog belt” posting as captain of Taraval Station.

Regarding police professionalism as a two-man arrangement involving himself and the chief, Christopher reaffirmed his own personal incorruptibility. “I was in office only a short while,” the mayor later advertised, “when a man came into my office and with hardly more than a hello, hinted he’d pay me $150,000 for gambling concessions. I booted him right out the door.” Christopher also claimed that he had turned away a police captain who approached him and offered, “I can play it any way you want. I can keep things opened up, or I can close them down—whatever you say.” Christopher assured the public that his personal determination to stay out of police affairs would allow his honest police leader to create “a streamlined, efficient department whose integrity was unquestioned.” Confident in Ahern’s power to impose his will on the police force beneath him, Mayor Christopher trumpeted, “We’re in business.”

Managerial Growth Politics and the Common Good

For managerial growth mayors like Christopher, police professionalism served a double purpose. On one hand, clean-government officials used police reforms to eliminate the graft hindering their redevelopment agenda. On the other hand, elites like Christopher exploited professionalism to present themselves as guardians of the public good. Managerial growth administrations across the country—in cities as wide-ranging as Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Oakland, Boston, and Atlanta—made police professionalism the dominant police model of the 1950s.

As managerial growth advocates achieved power and instituted police professionalism, their faith in top-down administrative reform freed police departments to enact a wide range of seemingly contradictory law enforcement strategies. In San Francisco, for instance, Christopher and his new police leaders proved comfortable operating machine-era and professional policing strategies side-by-side. Officers participating in either approach, Christopher, Ahern, and Cahill agreed, would reliably follow the will of the clean-government leadership.


Figure 4. Homicide bureau inspectors pose with evidence seized during a gambling raid. During the early 1950s, politically savvy police officers raised their status among managerial growth advocates by cracking down on gambling houses and other sources of police payola. Evidence for how clean-government law enforcement served as a launching pad for a generation of police officials, this photograph includes the SFPD’s next three police chiefs: Frank Ahern (second from left), Thomas Cahill (far left), and Al Nelder (far right). Michael Maguire, the commanding officer at the 1960 anti-HUAC demonstration at City Hall, is also present (fifth from right). April 23, 1955. (Reprinted with permission, Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 1959.010—NEG PT III 04–23–55.7: 6.)

The new administration’s willingness to maintain machine-era policing strategies came as a rude shock to the young entrepreneurs in Chinatown. When Christopher took office in 1956, both he and Chinatown’s business leaders sought to make Chinatown a demonstration project for the democratic potential of managerial growth politics. The mayor and the entrepreneurs agreed to integrate Chinatown into the growth agenda by transforming the neighborhood into a tourist destination for white families. Within the first thirty days of his administration, the mayor appointed Chinese-American entrepreneurs and landowners to various Chinatown development and tourism advisory committees, set plans for a new Chinatown parking garage, and approved the construction of a Grant Avenue archway marking the tourist entrance into the neighborhood. Chinatown’s development, Christopher and the neighborhood entrepreneurs hoped, would illustrate that citizens who accepted a development strategy reinforcing the city’s color-blind, family-oriented values could expect to enjoy a civic voice and personal enrichment.

Chinatown’s young business elites assumed that Mayor Christopher’s avowed commitments to color-blindness and consolidated authority in the upper ranks of government would lead to a final abolition of the Chinatown detail in their community. Months before Christopher took office, Mayor Robinson’s administration had cheered Chinatown entrepreneurs when its SFPD command staff, like the SFPD leadership under the previous administration, eliminated the Chinatown detail. Robinson’s police chief was likely hoping to either ingratiate himself with Christopher or deny the new mayor payola, but he explained the detail’s abolition by equating equal citizenship with uniform law enforcement. Chinatown’s residents, the Robinson’s chief declared, were “Americans of Chinese ancestry [who] should be treated as Americans.” When Christopher entered office, Chinatown spokespersons expressed their hope that the detail would remain demobilized. After all, Lee reminded his English-reading audience, the detail’s “corrupt practices” had worked against the interests of “the majority of law-abiding citizens.”

A month and a half into Christopher’s first term, the mayor and Chief Ahern encouraged white residents and tourists to attend Chinatown’s Chinese New Year Festival by banning gambling and fireworks and promising, in the Chronicle’s words, a “safe” and “honest” celebration. Chinatown business leaders swallowed these proscriptions, but other Chinatown residents proved less interested in remaking their neighborhood into a playground for white parents and their children. During the New Year parade, locals brazenly ignited fireworks and rained verbal abuse down on Chief Ahern’s parade car.

Christopher and Ahern immediately reactivated the Chinatown detail. The mayor assumed that Ahern would be able to direct all units under his command—even decentralized and formerly corrupt details—toward honest and color-blind law enforcement policies. The reconstituted squad quickly engaged in a series of raids against neighborhood gambling sites, and, as City Hall and SFPD officials predicted, the detail remained committed to this drive against open gaming. Indeed, by the end of the 1950s, the mainstream press used pictures of Chinatown detail officers to underscore the neighborhood’s new, law-abiding image. An extended San Francisco Examiner series on local policing, for instance, limited its depiction of the Chinatown detail to a single photograph of two squad members calmly supervising a legal game of mah-jongg. Chinatown entrepreneurs accepted the trade-off of dissimilar state services for economic gain. Recognizing that detail officers now served the neighborhood business community’s financial interests by rejecting payola, the Chinese World dropped its half-decade–long campaign against the detail and instead offered approving coverage of the Chinatown detail’s gambling house busts.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article