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History of the SFPD; Kevin Mullen Articles

By William B. Secrest
Word Dancer Press $15.95

Reviewed by Kevin Mullen

It is a commentary on the impermanence of fame that few modern San Franciscans

would be able to identify Isaiah Lees, the first Captain of Detectives in the San Francisco Police Department. Similarly, it would have been just as difficult to find anyone in San Francisco in the second half of the nineteenth century who was unfamiliar with Captain Lees and his accomplishments.

In his "Dark and Tangled Threads of Crime," Bill Secrest begins to set things aright by rescuing Lees from an undeserved obscurity. Isaiah Lees, whose almost 50-year career as a San Francisco police detective gained him an international reputation as one of the world’s leading detectives, is reflected in Secrest's biography as one of those rare individuals whose talents and temperament are uniquely suited to their time, place, and situation.

When municipal police departments were first established in nineteenth century cities, the initial concept was that uniformed "preventive" police officers would, by their presence on patrol, inhibit those inclined to commit crime. Some of the proponents of the new system believed that predatory crime could actually be eliminated by these methods.

As a practical matter, no municipality has ever had a tax base sufficient to provide enough preventive patrols to eliminate crime and it soon became evident that something more was needed. Beginning in Boston in 1846, American cities began forming detective police units. Patrol officers would attempt to prevent crime or make an arrest if possible. Detectives were expected to follow up on those cases in which no arrest was made in order to identify offenders, or, when arrests were made, to do the post-arrest collection of evidence necessary to secure a conviction.

The police force established in San Francisco in 1849—the year Lees arrived— was a preventive or protective department; there was no detective element. By early 1851, however, as offenders slipped through the justice system, the Daily Alta California, after one particularly egregious lapse, commented that "it should be the duty of some one, when notorious thieves are thus arrested, to hunt up evidence and convict the suspected persons, if guilty."

Like many others. Lees was unsuccessful in his efforts to find gold and he returned to San Francisco where he went to work for the Union Iron Works, South of Market Street. It was there, in 1852, that he received his first taste of the work that was to consume his life.

In September, adjacent to where Lees worked, a Spaniard named Jose Forni was observed by several witnesses to chase down a Mexican named Rodriquez in broad daylight and stab him to death. There was no question that Forni had done the stabbing, but his story was that he had killed the man in self-defense after the man had tried to kill and rob him of $300 he was carrying. Though not yet a member of the department. Lees became involved in the crime through friendships with police officers and he aided materially in prosecuting the case. Forni was found guilty in District Court and later that year was hanged on Russian Hill before a crowd of thousands, earning the dubious honor of being the first man legally executed in American San Francisco.

In response to a spate of unsolved robberies, several months later the editor of the Alta again brought up the subject of establishing a detective police force. "[We]would suggest the organization of a small 'detective police' of about six men here," he wrote, "who would be selected with the greatest care as to their integrity and capabilities." Nothing was to come of the suggestion at that time, either.

On October 26, 1853, the 23 year-old Isaiah Lees was appointed to the police force, unknowingly putting himself on the ground floor of a new era of police work in the Far West. A year later a basic detective unit was indeed finally initiated.

The new officer's abilities were quickly recognized and he was put in charge of the detective unit with the title of assistant captain. In those early days. Lees and his men had to depend on natural abilities, rather than a criminal science that was yet to evolve. They became incredibly adept at gathering evidence, isolating and prosecuting suspects, and recognizing criminals from meager descriptions originating hundreds of miles away.

Although appointed captain of detectives in 1856, in the turbulent political climate of the early department Lees was soon bounced back to patrolman. Reappointed captain in late 1859, he was to hold that post continuously until appointed Chief of Police in 1897.

Lees led a life of high excitement and drama, ranging from corralling burglars and con men to chasing stage robbers and forgers around the country. His physical prowess, as well as his innovative, psychological approach to fighting crime, made him truly a legend in his own time.

In his detailed study of Lees' career during the second half of the nineteenth century, Secrest takes us from the turbulent days of the Vigilance Committees of the early 1850s to the "Crime of the Century" belfry murders near the century's end. Along the way he records the criminal justice history of the city and the important part Lees played in the story. In accomplishing his task, Secrest shows us the exciting evolution of a fascinating city, the development of the detective police, and the life of Isaiah Lees.

Isaiah Lees has long deserved to be the subject of a full biography, and Bill Secrest is a worthy chronicler of that life.

Copies may be obtained from, most Costco stores, and many large books stores.

By Kevin Mullen

Writer and historian Kevin Mullen is a retired San Francisco deputy police chief.  He has written extensively on the history of the SFPD, and is a frequent contributor to the POA Journal. This piece appeared in the April 25, 2004 San Francisco Chronicle, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

When 18 year old John Runk was hanged in San Francisco in 1878 for the unprovoked murder of Officer Charles Coots a year earlier, the Chronicle explained why such a harsh penalty was called for.

"An officer of a city like San Francisco,” wrote the editor,  “is frequently called upon to risk his life. . . . His only protection [in case he is disabled or killed] is the knowledge that the law will surely punish anyone who attacks an officer.” Otherwise, he added, “no officer who has a wife and family could be blamed for keeping out of the way of danger.” The execution was necessary, he continued, “as a pledge to officers that their lives are held sacred by the authorities.”

Similar sentiments,  as pointed out by Senator Dianne Feinstein at the funeral for Officer Isaac Espinoza, murdered recently by a Bayview area gang member, are embodied in modern “special circumstances” legislation which provides for capital punishment for particularly heinous crimes, including the murder of a police officer.

District Attorney Kamela Harris’ office, however, has stated that she will hold to her election campaign commitment not to seek a death penalty.

Though regrettable, if history is any judge of what will happen, Harris’ position will probably prevail.

Of the 63 officers murdered prior to Officer Espinoza, 58 perpetrators were brought to justice one way or another [In five cases no perpetrator was identified]. Six of the killers, starting with Runk, were executed by legal process. In nine cases, the perpetrators were killed at the scene or died later from wounds received in encounters with the police. Two of the perpetrators committed suicide, including the 1982 murderer of Sergeant John Macauley. 

Following the 1920 murders of  Detectives Miles Jackson and Lester Dorman by thugs they pursued to Santa Rosa, an angry mob -- said to have included off-duty San Francisco police officers -- took the prisoners from the county jail and hanged them from a nearby tree.

In the 30 remaining cases (61% of those brought to justice) some lesser penalty – or none at all – was assessed. The dispositions ranged from outright dismissal, to not guilty findings at trial, to commitment to a mental hospital, to prison sentences ranging from five years to life.

There wasn’t much doubt that Maurice Curtis killed Officer Alexander Grant who was walking him in to the Folsom Street station in 1891. The perpetrator was caught within a block with the officer’s “nippers” with which he was being restrained, still attached to his arm. Curtis, a wealthy theatrical figure, hired  a “dream team” of attorneys who were able to muddy the waters sufficiently to secure his eventual acquittal.

On the occasion of the killing of Sergeant Anton Nolting by Thomas Jordan in 1909, another paper reported that the police “believe that Jordan can be convicted  without difficulty, although they point out somewhat bitterly to the list of four other policeman killed since the [1906] fire with but one ten-year conviction.”  Ten years holds up well as an average sentence for those convicted of killing police officers in San Francisco.

In 79% of the cases the officers were killed while making an arrest or transporting prisoners to the station.  An analysis of the cases suggests that many of the officers would not have died had they come on more aggressively. In defense of the officers who died in such circumstances, they were confronted with a dilemma – still very much part of the equation – of whether to pull their gun or not.

Commenting on the 1924 Nob Hill murder of Sergeant “Joe” Brady, Captain (and later Chief of Police) Charles Dullea gave voice to the dilemma faced by officers in any age. “Should he be courteous and approach with the gun in his holster? Or shall he play it safe and approach with a cocked and threatening weapon? If he plays it safe, he may be dismissed; if he is courteous, he may be dead.” 

When Officer Timothy Ryan was gunned down in 1943 responding to a domestic dispute, one local editor voted for the latter course. Police officers should take more precautions he wrote and that “even if they may face the displeasure of citizens who feel they are exceeding their authority by having a gun in hand when they come to settle some quarrel between husband and wife, a little ridicule is much more desirable than a lot of tears and sorrow.”

It is small comfort to Officer Espinoza’s survivors  but in the last two decades of the twentieth century murders of police officers have declined appreciably from what they were in past times. The declines are usually explained in terms of the use of body armor and the adoption of improved training in defensive measures.

Some old time officers have wondered at the tendency of modern officers to draw their weapons so freely, “putting people on the ground,” and cuffing minor offenders. The same sort of concerns have been expressed by various community groups. But when one considers the decline in officers’ murders since the more aggressive tactics have been implemented, the tactics may just have to be the price that society has to pay.

And unless sufficient penalties are assessed against those who do murder our officers, it could occur, as the Chronicle editor pointed out in 1878 “no officer who has a wife and family could be blamed for keeping out of the way of danger.”