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The Modern San Francisco Police Department

Technological breakthroughs of the late 1920's revolutionized police work as nothing before or since, and the city's modern police department can trace its roots to this period. The beginning of radio communications in 1930 gave the department a significant edge over criminals. The chief of the city's Department of Electricity, Ralph Wiley, helped the police department use the radio to its full advantage.

While Buick touring cars used by the department's Traffic Division were excellent pursuit vehicle for their day, traffic officers frequently were forced to stop at police call boxes or pay telephones to request instructions from headquarters. Wiley solved the problem by setting up a private, low-frequency radio transmitter in the Jefferson Square Central Fire Alarm Station. There, an officer could broadcast orders to a fleet of specially-equipped radio cars. The Automotive Radio Patrol Unit, as the fleet was called, also was equipped with earphones which a second officer in the car could use to prevent the signal from being overheard on the street. While the officers in the new radio cars still could not talk to the dispatcher, the new communications equipment allowed several officers to simultaneously converge on a crime scene.

The department also made use of another technological innovation when it introduced the city's first motorcycle unit. The unit was official named the Sidecar Motorcycle Corps, but known as "The Flying Squad," after the winged wheel insignia of the uniform shoulder patches. The squad consisted of 90 men and 45 Harley-Davidson motorcycles equipped with sidecars. While private citizens and the newspapers frequently ridiculed the motorcycles as "motorized bathtubs," the Flying Squad tandems proved to be the most efficient pursuit vehicles used by the department.

The early 1930's were years of labor unrest in San Francisco. Labor leaders like Harry Bridges organized the city's stevedores and other workers. When negotiations between ship owners and dock workers broke down in the summer of 1934, Bridges and the other labor leaders called a citywide general strike for July 5. What began as a heated demonstration by the strikers at the corner of Mission and Front streets boiled over into violence when demonstrators refused orders of mounted police units to disperse.

While no one is certain which side fired first, a gun battle ensued which left two of the strikers dead and many more injured, primarily by a stampede of panicked demonstrators. The entire city was thrown into turmoil, and retired police officer Dan McKlem explained what happened:

"Unions just played havoc with the city. They cut off deliveries to all the stores, and nothing could get in or out of the waterfront. The department canceled all leaves and called in all kinds of auxiliary police with no experience, and they called in the National Guard to protect the railroads, which was the only way there was of getting food into the city. I was stationed down around King and Channel [streets in Mission Bay], which was where the State Belt Line Railway boxcars came in, and they put me with a new guy named Lasky. He was a terribly nervous fellow, and he really shouldn't have been allowed on the force, but this was an emergency, and they were desperate. Well, one night the National Guard started shooting -- I never found out what they were shooting at -- and Lasky just went crazy. He was yelling and crying and I couldn't do anything with him. That's when I realized they were taking anybody [into the department] who came along."

The unions held everything up for two months. They stopped streetcars and buses, and we had to commandeer automobiles so we had cars enough for the police force. You'd tour around where the trouble was supposed to be and just hope for the best. I managed to get through it without much trouble until the strike finally ended and I put in for my vacation. We'd all worked 'round the clock, and never got a dime's worth of overtime for it."

The strike did enable the department to experiment with two new crowd control techniques. The first, teargas, had been sitting unused in the department's arsenal since shortly after World War I. The second, aerial reconnaissance, was used temporarily when milling crowds of thousands of striker blockaded the waterfront. The department borrowed a small, single-engine plane to fly over the crowd. While the idea was abandoned shortly after the strike, the department briefly had an Aviation Police Unit, the forerunner of the helicopter squad established 35 years later.
In 1937, the San Francisco Police Department relocated the police academy to the former Golden Gate Park Station, located at Fulton and 37th Ave. At the same time, the force improved training procedures and required recruits to undergo an intensive, 16-week instruction program. According to a contemporary issue of "Police and Peace Officer's Journal," recruits were given 100 hours of criminal law instruction, nearly three times the requirement of standard law schools, as well as 40 hours of instruction on penal law and 16 hours on the laws of arrest.

Other courses included 73 hours of physical education, 48 hours of firearms training, 18 hours on police organization and administration, and 25 hours of instruction in police reports and records. Following the completion of the classroom training, recruits were assigned to the field under the supervision of seasoned veterans for "hands-on" experience. The department's program was easily the most thorough in the nation, and was imitated by departments throughout the United States.

The World War II Years, or Return to the SFPD Exhibit Page.

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