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Streetwise: SF Police Department On Duty

by Frank Dunnigan
May 2023

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
Last year, STREETWISE looked back through the Western Neighborhoods Project photo archive at some examples of the San Francisco Fire Department in action. Now, we explore memories of the San Francisco Police Department – including the many diverse functions performed by the women and men of SFPD throughout the western neighborhoods over the last century.

Officer Hicks conducting children across 1st Avenue (now Arguello Blvd.) and Lake Street, January 1925 - Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.
In a busy metropolitan area, a police force takes on public safety in many ways. In times past when most children walked to school, uniformed officers watched over them, especially when crossing busy streets. This image of Arguello Boulevard near Lake Street in the Richmond District is nearly 100 years old, with the buildings in the background on the east side of Arguello still there today. The empty lot in the middle of the photo became the site of a new home built a few years later.

Night view looking north on Clement Street at 8th Avenue; police moving pedestrian Peter Dubalan, hit by auto, into an ambulance, February 17, 1953 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
Public safety also includes responding to injuries on the streets. In this image, an accident victim is placed into a Department of Public Health ambulance outside the Gallenkamp’s Shoe Store on the northwest corner of Clement Street at 8th Avenue, with the assistance of SFPD. At that time, Gallenkamp’s operated stores on Chestnut, Clement, Fillmore, Market, and Mission Streets, plus at Stonestown Mall, numerous other locations throughout the Bay Area, and more than 500 stores nationwide; all are now gone. Today, the Clement Street site is home to a café.

Overturned auto at Anza & Parker, March 21, 1953 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
One can only imagine the reaction of police officers responding to this traffic call at Anza Street and Parker Avenue – a usually quiet street in the western neighborhoods. Seventy years after this mishap, the area remains quiet and residential.

People in line for tickets to a 49ers playoff game against the Detroit Lions at Kezar Stadium, December 21, 1957 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
SFPD’s Mounted Patrol covers beaches, parks, and developed areas of San Francisco as conditions dictate. Here, the Mounted Patrol assists with crowd control at a 49ers playoff game against the Detroit Lions on a rainy December day in 1957 at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. The original Kezar Stadium, built in 1925 with nearly 60,000 seats for spectators, was demolished in 1989 and replaced with the present stadium that has a capacity of just 10,000.

Crowd of students observing a police safety demonstration at Balboa Reservoir, circa 1964 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
Public safety demonstrations show how the Traffic Division investigates auto accidents by measuring skid marks to determine a vehicle’s speed. This scene was played out for a group of students gathered at right in the empty reservoir site adjacent to City College of San Francisco. Read more about possible future uses of this reservoir site.

View across Point Lobos Avenue of the Sutro Baths fire; Cliff Chalet and Sutro's visible, June 26, 1966 - Photo by Chet Born, SF Fire Department / Courtesy of Guardians of the City.
Although the San Francisco Fire Department takes charge at the scene of a fire, SFPD provides crucial support – particularly with traffic diversion and crowd control. Here is an image of the in-progress fire that destroyed the Sutro Baths building and adjacent structures in June of 1966. HISTORIC FOOTNOTE: Sutro’s had already been vacated, with its artifacts removed, and demolition was in progress to prepare the site for a high-rise housing complex when the fire broke out. It was eventually determined to be arson, though no one was ever charged with a crime. According to local history records, the developers received the insurance money and the housing project was never built. Today, the site is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, created by the federal government in 1972.

Police, newsmen and mourners scurry for cover as a bomb explodes at St. Brendan's Catholic Church on Rockaway Avenue and Laguna Honda, October 22, 1970 - Photo by Seymour Snaer / SF Examiner News Photo, Courtesy of a Private Collector.
The Bomb Squad is assigned to investigate incendiary devices, including the one that produced this blast at St. Brendan Church on Rockaway Avenue in Forest Hill. It exploded just before the start of the October 22, 1970 funeral for police officer Harold Hamilton, who was killed in the line of duty during a Richmond District bank robbery a few days prior. No one was injured in the blast at the church, and this incident was never solved. Eight months earlier, SFPD Sergeant Brian McDonnell was killed at a bombing at Park Station – another case that officially remains unsolved. The church and the surrounding residential area remain largely unchanged more than 50 years later.

Sunset-Parkside Community Conference at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School, circa 1970 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
Public outreach is another important aspect of police work. Police Chief Al Nelder is shown here speaking to a gathering of Sunset District residents at the then-new St. Ignatius College Preparatory on 37th Avenue. Seated at center is Mayor Joseph Alioto, and at far right, a recently elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein (then only 37 years old). She had just won her first election to the board less than one year earlier in the fall of 1969. St. Ignatius, founded in 1855, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its 37th Avenue campus in the fall of 2019, and has been fully co-educational for more than 33 years.

Hibernia Bank at 1450 Noriega Street at 22nd Avenue, 1976 - AP Wire Photo / WNP Collection.
Shown here is the Sunset District branch of Hibernia Bank, located at the northeast corner of 22nd Avenue and Noriega Street circa 1976. Two years earlier, on April 15, 1974, it was the site of a robbery by kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. The suspects fled, but were eventually found – some in Los Angeles in May of 1974 and some in San Francisco in September of 1975. Hibernia Bank was acquired by Security-Pacific Bank in 1988 and Security-Pacific itself was acquired by Bank of America in 1992, with the building bearing each of those names for a few years before Bank of America closed the branch. In recent times, the site has been home to a neighborhood health clinic.

Boy with bicycle looking at crashed car on the southwest corner of 15th Avenue and Vicente Street, September 1977 - Photo by Greg Gaar / Courtesy of Greg Gaar.
Even in quiet residential areas like the Parkside, traffic accidents can be regular occurrences. Here, a late model Buick has just struck a utility pole at the southwest corner of 15th Avenue and Vicente Street in 1977. The area is essentially unchanged today, except that the modest $50,000 homes shown here 46 years ago are now generally selling in excess of $1.5 million each.

Reopening of N-Judah Streetcar on Judah and 31st Avenue; Muni Streetcar #1, September 16, 1978 - Photo by Greg Gaar / Courtesy of Greg Gaar.
Again, the Mounted Patrol coordinates crowd control as Mayor George Moscone leads the festivities to celebrate the reopening of the N-Judah streetcar line at 31st Avenue and Judah Street on September 16, 1978, after extensive renovations had been completed. Sadly, this was one of Mayor Moscone’s final appearances at a civic event in the Sunset District because ten weeks later, he was shot and killed in his City Hall office. The service station on the southeast corner at far right has long since been replaced with a multi-story apartment building.

Demolition of apartment building on 7th Avenue and Judah damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake, April 1990 - Photo by Greg Gaar / Courtesy of Greg Gaar.
Traffic control is needed at times of natural disasters as well as after-the-fact. Here, SFPD provides oversight in April of 1990 at the northwest corner of 7th Avenue and Judah Street during the demolition of an apartment building that was severely damaged six months earlier by the Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. A new apartment building was then constructed at the site. Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, shown in the distance, first occupied that site in 1907, and the present church building was dedicated in 1929.
It was May of 2004 when Heather Fong, a 27-year veteran of SFPD and a graduate of the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State University, was named Chief of Police – the first Asian-American woman to hold such a position in the United States. Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s account of her life and some of the early highlights of her career at the time of her appointment to the Chief’s post.

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