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Murdered in the Line of Duty

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.”