The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-72
When the police began using their discretion with African American gang leaders, gay and lesbian bar owners, Haight-Ashbury hippies and other postwar San Franciscans, a rise in liberal cosmopolitism would follow throughout America.
Excerpted from The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972by Christopher Lowen Agee (footnotes omitted). Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2014 University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
“I Will Never Degrade the Spirit of Unity”: Managerial Growth Politics and Police Professionalism
“I am going to warn you I am not accustomed to mincing words,” Mayor George Christopher thundered. Standing on the stage of the Commerce High School auditorium, San Francisco’s chief executive looked down upon hundreds of seated San Francisco police officers. Five days earlier, on January 8, 1954, Christopher had taken the oath of office on the heels of yet another SFPD scandal. In this latest embarrassment, federal Treasury officials had raided a bar offering open gambling just one block from the Hall of Justice. Christopher entered City Hall aiming to assert the authority of his office with a department-wide assembly. “I do not intend to have anybody tell me or the [Police] Commission that something has been under their noses and they don’t know anything about it,” he lectured. “Very frankly, if something is going on under your nose or under ours it means we are either blind or incompetent. And it means we are not fit to hold our jobs.”
With Christopher’s election, San Francisco joined a growing wave of cities turning to managerial growth mayors committed to clean-government reforms and downtown redevelopment. These mayors—including New York City’s Robert Wagner, St. Louis’s Raymond Tucker, Philadelphia’s Joseph Clark, and Boston’s John Hynes—presumed that downtown growth served the interest of all citizens. Those citizens, Mayor Christopher believed, maintained a host of preexisting shared values. He accepted nominal class and religious pluralism in civic debate, but asserted that the primary purpose of government was to never “degrade the spirit of unity.” The mayor believed that poor management produced factional rifts, and he proposed to avoid that pitfall by consolidating power in the hands of administrative experts from the business community. Christopher’s new Police Commission, for instance, consisted of a corporate lawyer and two former presidents of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. These new officials, he promised, would institute a system in which police officers were “promoted on merit, not by a mayor calling up someone and using his influence.” Christopher vowed that he himself would “administer the big business of San Francisco... on a sound, constructive, business-like basis.”
Christopher’s technocratic pledges thrilled the reporters crammed along the wings of the Commerce High School auditorium. The following morning, the San Francisco Chronicle’s front-page, top-of-the-fold coverage heralded Christopher’s fight against “inefficiency and corruption” as a generational sea change. When the assembly ended and the mayor and his police commissioners “invited” officers to shake their hands, the Chronicle reported, “younger officers in the department... went out of their way to stand in line and meet the officials.”
In truth, many of the young officers seethed. Thomas Cahill, who subsequently served as Mayor Christopher’s police chief, recalled that officers who considered themselves honest felt that Christopher “was casting reflections on them.” Sol Weiner, a three-wheeled-motorcycle officer, later characterized the speech as “rotten,” and Patrolman Elliot Blackstone remembered:
So Christopher got up, and he accused us all of being a bunch of thieves and crooks and everything else. But he said, “You know I’d be glad to work with you.” ...And he made us all so mad. Then after he got done talking, we were all invited to come up on stage to shake hands with him. Well, I and two or three hundred of us at least turned around and walked out of there. We wanted nothing to do with this guy.
It likely never occurred to either Christopher or the journalists to survey the rank and file for their perspectives. The mayor and his supporters all trusted that the city’s common interests could be met through administrative, top-down reforms. Indeed, Christopher and his backers assumed that more than any other clean-government changes, police reform would convince the electorate of the efficacy and righteousness of managerial growth politics.
The Downtown Leadership and Police Professionalism
Mayor Christopher’s efforts at police reform during the mid-1950s represented the culmination of a decades-old battle between San Francisco’s downtown business leaders and the city’s traditional machine politicians. Similar downtown-versus-machine struggles had been roiling in American cities since the turn of the century, as large-scale business interests sought greater influence in urban affairs and machine politicians struggled to retain their political and financial independence from downtown elites. In cities like San Francisco, machine officials employed their licensing powers to collect favors and graft from small-business owners, and they used their appointment powers—over institutions including schools, fire departments, and public works departments—to earn the votes of working-class residents.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, downtown representatives attempted to bring their local governments to heel with clean-government reforms. In 1932 a group of San Francisco entrepreneurs, financial officers, and corporate executives—serving such economic behemoths as Bank of America, Standard Oil of California, Pacific Gas and Electric, and the Bechtel Corporation—scored a major victory in their city when they shepherded through a new city charter ending mayoral appointments to the public works department and transferring licensing authority out of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and into the hands of various appointees. (San Francisco’s city and county lines are identical, so the board functions as a city council.) Because the 1932 charter retained the city’s at-large election format, candidates for supervisor now saw little choice but to turn to downtown elites for help in funding their expensive citywide campaigns. For the next forty years, the Board of Supervisors rarely wavered as a representative of the downtown leadership’s agenda.
During the late 1940s, new potential crises and windfalls motivated San Francisco corporate elites to press for further influence in local politics. San Francisco’s big-business leadership emerged from World War II alarmed that a downturn in local military spending and a concomitant rise in suburban and Sun Belt manufacturing threatened to drain San Francisco of its economic vitality. Through groups like the Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco’s corporate representatives responded to this threat with a regional plan that called for City Hall to remake San Francisco into a financial and administrative center—what one scholar termed the “brains and heart”—for a Bay Area–wide manufacturing economy.
The federal Housing Act of 1949 opened the possibility for just this sort of transformation. Under the new law, the federal government offered to cover two-thirds of the costs associated with purchasing areas pegged for redevelopment. Moreover, it permitted cities to sell or lease the lands to private developers at below-market values. In order to tap the Housing Act subsidies, the city government simply had to prove that an area under consideration for redevelopment was blighted and that the government had plans to renew the land with projects serving the civic interest.
The managerial growth advocates’ desire for new federal redevelopment dollars steered them into a final showdown with San Francisco’s traditional machine politicians. In 1947 San Franciscans elected Elmer Robinson, a former member of the judiciary and a committed practitioner of machine politics. When Congress passed the Housing Act two years later, downtown officials implored Robinson to install a competent director for the new San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA). Instead, Robinson tapped a political hatchet man who filled the SFRA’s staff positions with other political cronies. Robinson’s SFRA planners possessed neither the motivation nor the competence required to craft and submit redevelopment studies and plans. The various downtown redevelopment schemes thus floundered in what one scholar described as a web of “obstructionism and venality.”
Managerial growth proponents recognized that although charter reform had created an obedient Board of Supervisors, one final unreformed institution—the San Francisco Police Department—allowed the mayor to maintain his independence. Police departments like the SFPD had been sustaining machine politics since their creation in the mid-19th century. Machine politicians doled out important positions in their police departments with the expectation that beholden officers would get out the vote and collect payoffs for the machine’s campaign war chest. A 1937 inquiry into SFPD corruption—dubbed the Atherton investigation—found that San Francisco’s police served as “an organized and powerful electioneering force” that would solicit votes and “aid materially in raising campaign funds.” Indeed, the probe unearthed a vast network of payoffs linking officers of all ranks to the city’s gambling, prostitution, and bail bond industries. The Atherton investigation estimated that the SFPD collected on average over one million dollars per year.
Managerial growth advocates confronted this corruption with the concept of police professionalism. A product of the Progressive era, police professionalism followed the principles that reformers had already used to restructure other institutions underpinning the machine, such as schools. Professionalism advocates proposed to funnel police authority upward into the hands of an expert, nonpartisan police chief. This honest police leader, reformers assumed, would then use his autonomy to select and train officers dedicated to serving citywide interests through a vigorous campaign against crime. Police professionalizers were primarily concerned with the venal links between city officials and police department commanders, and they thus rarely offered specifics on what a professionalized police chief would do other than reject payoffs. Police professionalism, the legal scholar David Sklansky explains, was more of a “governing mindset” than a policy prescription.
Following the Atherton scandal, San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce successfully lobbied for two charter amendments aimed at transferring power from district station captains to the chief of police. First, San Francisco increased the chief ’s oversight over district captains by joining a wave of cities (eventually including Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Cincinnati, and New Orleans) consolidating police districts, reducing San Francisco’s fourteen district stations to nine. Second, it followed the lead of other municipalities by transferring responsibility for so-called vice crimes (a formal SFPD category that included gambling, narcotics, and sex offenses) out of the district stations and into a new Bureau of Special Services. The twelve officers of Special Services operated as part of the Inspectors Bureau but answered directly to the chief of police.
The Atherton reforms proved fleeting. The attempt to concentrate responsibility within the SFPD via the charter amendments meant little if the police chief did not then use his consolidated authority to crack down on payola. One observer noted that the centralization of authority over vice policing served simply to “centralize collections.” Reformers understood that corruption persisted with the consent of the mayor: the 1932 city charter had granted the three-member, civilian Police Commission authority over SFPD policies, appointments, and disciplinary decisions, but the commissioners served at the mayor’s will and thus attended to his interests reliably.
When Mayor Robinson took office in 1948, his Police Commission set out to create an SFPD arrangement conducive to the flow of favors and graft. The new administration appointed Michael Mitchell police chief, then immediately treated the SFPD leader as a straw boss. Robinson recognized that he could collect far more favors by bypassing Mitchell and personally doling out positions and authority along the two main branches of power extending from under Chief Mitchell. First and foremost, the police commissioners distributed prized positions within the Inspectors Bureau. The SFPD’s plainclothes inspectors enjoyed status and authority over uniformed patrol officers, and once inspectors were appointed, their positions were protected by their bureau’s tenure rules and Byzantine disciplinary procedures. As a result, the less motivated inspectors could spend their workdays thumbing through paperwork and keeping what one reporter charitably labeled “bankers’ hours.” Police commissioners racked up a multitude of favors for Robinson by transferring well-connected police officers to the bureau. Commenting on the active hand Robinson’s commissioners played in inspector appointments, the chief of inspectors explained, “I work on the theory that if the Police Commission will give me even one man I’ve picked out myself for every two men who are assigned to me, I’ll get along fairly well.”
Robinson’s Police Commission cultivated a second line of influence through key appointments within the district stations. Police commanders usually desired positions atop the Northern, Central, Southern, and Mission Stations because these stations covered neighborhoods (such as the waterfront, the Tenderloin, the Fillmore, and North Beach) with high-profile crimes and high-reward payola. Police commissioners usually limited themselves to command-rank appointments and then allowed police captains to run their districts as their own personal fiefdoms. On occasion, however, commissioners meddled with patrol posts along payola-rich beats. One of the Robinson Police Commission’s first acts was to replace a long-tenured patrolman assigned to the Broadway Street nightlife scene. Noting that Robinson’s Police Commission was “usurp[ing]” Mitchell’s “function as Chief ” “down to the placement and transfer of ordinary patrolmen,” the San Francisco Chronicle pondered, “What’s behind all this manipulation in the Police Department?”
By abetting police payola practices, Robinson’s machine ran afoul of state and federal police agencies warring against organized crime. Outside law enforcement officials repeatedly targeted San Francisco gambling houses that they feared might become footholds for East Coast gangsters. To the consternation of state and federal officials, SFPD officers on the take withheld assistance from and actively interfered with external investigations. Following one bookmaking sting by state agents, a local newspaper jeered, “The San Francisco Police Department was not informed of plans for the raid. Why? Apparently because the raiders wanted to succeed by surprise.” Mayor Robinson shrugged off these scandals and worked to roll back the meager post–Atherton investigation reforms. The mayor’s Police Commission sidelined the Bureau of Special Services by slashing the positions of all but three inspectors and returning vice policing back to the district stations.