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 Politics and the Common Good (cont’d)

Ahern relied on machine-era policing approaches because he was confident of the transformative power of his personal honesty, but also because he lacked the creativity to devise modern, professional strategies. In 1958, while attending a Labor Day home game of the newly arrived San Francisco Giants, and during a dramatic play at the home plate, Ahern suffered a fatal heart attack. For his replacement, Christopher turned to Cahill. The new chief possessed Ahern’s willingness to turn down graft, but he also brought a keener tactical and administrative mind to the office. Under Cahill, the SFPD leapt into the van of the nation’s police professionalism movement.

Cahill was born in Chicago, but he spent his first seventeen years in Ireland with his mother. After she passed away in 1929, Cahill returned to the United States to settle close to relatives in the Bay Area. He worked for the next thirteen years as a farmhand, a cement hauler, an elevator operator, and an ice deliveryman. In this final position, Cahill’s leadership potential emerged, and he was elected to serve as the Ice Wagon Drivers Union representative to the powerful San Francisco Labor Council. By now, Cahill had grown into a striking and magnetic figure. Tall and broad-shouldered, Cahill charmed with his blue eyes, red hair, and Irish brogue. In 1942 the thirty-two-year-old Cahill entered San Francisco’s Police Academy, where his final class yearbook identified him as “most likely to become Chief of Police.” Cahill not only made good on that prediction but went on to serve as the longest-tenured SFPD chief in San Francisco history.

Elsewhere in the country, police professionalism advocates were arguing that the nation’s newly reformed police departments could now serve the common good through preventive policing. Criminology scholars, such as the University of California’s O. W. Wilson, and prominent police leaders, including Police Chief William Parker in Los Angeles, urged police departments to begin seeking out criminals rather than waiting for citizen complaints. Just weeks after his appointment, Chief Cahill introduced Operation S as a novel preventive approach to violent crime. Cahill explained that the S stood for saturation, and he promised a professional program based on centralized personnel authority and putatively color-blind, scientific data sets. Operation S leaders at the Hall of Justice used crime statistics to identify criminal “hot-spot” neighborhoods, and then, twice a week, they flooded these hot spots with roughly fifty police officers handpicked from the district stations.

In December 1958 a Chronicle feature offered a typically effusive description of Operation S’s top-down arrangement. The report began by explaining how Deputy Chief Al Nelder personally briefed the participating Operation S officers. These meetings rarely included concrete information beyond a hot sheet enumerating the licenses of stolen automobiles, but the wowed Chronicle compared the orientations to “an evening in night school.” After officers received this preparation, the newspaper continued, the police headed out as “shock troops” to not only solve crimes but prevent them. When police encountered citizens on the street, the article explained, officers employed vagrancy charges against those whom police believed were ready to break the law and compelled the remainder to fill out identification cards. These identity cards, the Chronicle concluded, then became “tactical weapons” by providing police with a ready list of suspects for any nearby crimes.

Operation S served managerial growth advocates by establishing rationales for large-scale redevelopment. Christopher’s opposition to government welfare had initially made the new mayor wary of large redevelopment projects necessitating federal aid. He had therefore initially pursued small, privately funded projects, such as the construction of the Chinatown tourist-entrance archway. By 1958, however, the mayor was considering an upcoming reelection race alongside the continued demands of his downtown backers for access to federal redevelopment funds. Christopher thus relented, and Operation S now helpfully taught citizens to identify planned zones of redevelopment as crime hot spots in need of rescuing.

From the start, Operation S commanders and the SFRA’s large-scale planners both set their sites on the Fillmore District, a predominantly black neighborhood bordering City Hall. In December 1959, Ernest Lenn, a San Francisco Examiner journalist, recounted an evening he spent shadowing two Operation S officers through “the neon-lit, trouble-spot Fillmore area.” Beginning his feature with a stock description of Deputy Chief Nelder’s orientation, Lenn recounted how the officers’ patrol car rolled into the Fillmore, where “slum clearance” had “leveled a swath of drab, ancient buildings.” The city had replaced the former neighborhood with “many-storied housing projects” that looked to Lenn like passing “hospital ships in wartime.” However, the redevelopment campaign remained incomplete: other “slum buildings still stand, waiting patiently for the end.” Lenn believed that until the clearance was finished, Operation S officers were necessary guardians against violence. His article recounted how, over the course of the evening, the two patrol officers prevented a rape, issued a vagrancy arrest to an armed former convict “lurking” behind tall bushes, and questioned a variety of other men.

Both Operation S and redevelopment, managerial growth proponents averred, represented clear examples of the city leadership’s ability to promote a colorblind common good. This service to broader shared interests, downtown growth advocates concluded, allowed the city to look past questions of individual civil liberties. “The respectable citizen,” District Attorney Thomas Lynch explained, “shouldn’t object to being stopped and questioned politely if he realizes it’s for his own protection.”

Operation S established San Francisco as a national leader in police professionalism. Television shows ranging from The Lineup during the 1950s to The Streets of San Francisco two decades later celebrated the SFPD for its combination of technical proficiency, academic expertise, and tough-fisted policing. Meanwhile, managerial growth administrations in other cities began recognizing that they too could employ putatively centrally orchestrated policing arrangements to rationalize increased police pressure. In 1960 the Chicago Police Department used Operation S as a point of inspiration when it launched stop-and-frisk policing. Over the next decade, growth-oriented cities across the nation followed San Francisco’s and Chicago’s lead with their own programs of “aggressive preventive patrol.”

The Discovery of Discretion

Mayor Christopher’s broad electoral coalition and the SFPD’s mixture of machine-era and professional policing strategies all rested on the assumption that state institutions served as reliable extensions of the city leadership’s will. But just as Mayor Christopher achieved power through police professionalism, criminologists made a startling discovery with the potential to undercut Christopher’s conception of governance. Policing scholars who observed officers on the street slowly recognized that even professional police did not act as simple automatons of the department and city leadership; instead, officers used and enjoyed tremendous amounts of discretion.

The discovery of discretion began with a 1956 American Bar Association (ABA) study of urban police activities. The ABA initiated this national investigation into day-to-day law enforcement to better understand the police corruption garnering attention from managerial growth advocates. From the start, ABA investigators uncovered widespread evidence of police misbehavior. One field report, for instance, recounted an incident in which police interrogated a suspect with a fake polygraph machine fashioned from a kitchen colander. Revelations of police wrongdoing were nothing new; a range of studies during the 1930s—including San Francisco’s Atherton investigation and the congressional Wickersham Report—found endemic police criminality in urban police departments. These earlier inquiries, however, assumed that police malfeasance arose from feeble leadership and partisan outside interests corrupting officers who suffered from weak morals. The notion of police discretion played little role in this story. O. W. Wilson’s Police Administration (1950), the so-called bible of professionalism, advocated top-down reforms without employing the term discretion once.

The ABA researchers, however, viewed instances of police criminality in the context of all the officers’ day-to-day activities. In this new light, the surveyors recognized that the practice of law enforcement in the United States usually rested on the subjective decision making of individual officers. Law enforcement officials, the study found, then sometimes used that discretion to pursue their own institutional interests. Managerial growth proponents were soon forced to confront the fact that the administration of law enforcement did not parallel the governance of redevelopment. Whereas redevelopment officials in San Francisco plotted out neighborhood razings and construction projects with relative exactitude from SFRA board rooms, the Hall of Justice’s police policies were always mediated through an array of considerations made by the department’s 1,800 officers. This realization raised the question of whether police professionalization necessitated more than a consolidation of power at the upper ranks.

By the late 1950s, the survey’s new interpretation of discretion filtered into the public through articles and conferences. California scholars played a prominent role in the ABA research, and thus an awareness of police discretion hit the Golden State early. For careful observers of the SFPD, it became clear that officers involved in policing programs like the Chinatown detail and Operation S relied on their own subjective determinations. In Chinatown, a new generation of activists began asserting that some Chinatown detail officers used their autonomy to disregard intraneighborhood violence. These community spokespersons believed that City Hall leaders and Chinatown businesspeople tolerated the squad’s discretionary underenforcement of the law because reports of resident-on-resident violence hurt the area’s reputation as a “safe and clean” tourist spot for white families.

Operation S, by contrast, created institutional incentives encouraging officers to use their discretion to engage in aggressive law enforcement. The twice-a-week program offered uniformed officers the thrilling opportunity to play the role of inspectors. “We weren’t hemmed in by boundaries,” Patrolman John Mindermann recalled. “We were thrown into the whole environment of the city to do whatever the hell we wanted.” Patrol officers understood, moreover, that distinguished work on this special assignment could earn them a transfer into the vaunted Inspectors Bureau. Thus, as participating police pursued arrests, one patrolman recalled, the sense of competition among officers was “open and raw.”

Mayor Christopher and the managerial growth proponents ultimately appreciated the subjective policing encouraged by Operation S. Autonomous discretion strengthened the participating police officers’ ability to maintain San Francisco’s traditional boundaries of citizenship. Managerial growth advocates gave little public consideration to the workplace motivations of police officers but assumed that white male patrol officers would follow the city leadership’s color-blind family values. Christopher and Cahill therefore trusted these officers to use their discretion to enforce the city’s cultural, sexual, and racial norms.

The Examiner’s Lenn illustrated these assumptions in his report on his night shadowing two Operation S officers. The two patrol officers, Lenn related, spent the evening sizing up people on the street but then came to a stop when they encountered “two Negroes.” The two Fillmore residents made themselves suspicious to the officers, Lenn explained, by wearing “windbreakers and dungarees” and “loitering” in the entryway of a residence. To Lenn and the officers it was obvious that these black men were exhibiting dangerous intentions through their clothes and behavior. Thus for Lenn it went without saying that the officers had used their discretion to serve the common good when they compelled the two men—and eight other residents before the night was over—to show their identification papers and “fill out Operation S interrogation cards.” The fact that the officers eventually dismissed all ten of those men without charge did not dissuade Lenn from presuming that the patrol officers’ discretion served “to bolster the thin blue line” between order and chaos.


During the mid-twentieth century, downtown elites in cities across the country wrested power from traditional machines through managerial growth politics. Seeking to sideline working-class voters, big-business representatives argued that the city could protect the traditional standards of citizenship and promote widespread economic growth by consolidating governing power into the hands of supposedly dispassionate experts like themselves. Police professionalism served a double purpose in this campaign: the reforms squelched the machine’s payola, and the program’s abstract promises of top-down, common-good governance won support from an array of constituencies maintaining different understandings of the city’s interests.

As Mayor Christopher and the SFPD’s new leadership entered office promising law enforcement reform from above, scholars discovered that much of police policy was made on the beat. Recognizing how discretion-oriented programs like the Chinatown detail and Operation S served the redevelopment agenda, managerial growth advocates scrambled to rationalize the rank and file’s broad prerogatives. Managerial growth proponents ultimately justified discretion by insisting that the city’s officers could be trusted to use their powers in the service of the citizenry’s shared color-blind, traditional family values.

Christopher Lowen Agee is assistant professor in the history department at the University of Colorado Denver.

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