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Related Museum Links San Francisco in the 1920s

San Francisco Police Department History

Chinatown in the 1880s

Last Tong War in Chinatown

Rum Bribery Higherups Hunted as Plotters - 1922

Police Recruits Learn to Sing - 1925

Senator Phelan Denounces Prohibition - 1929

Police Work in the 1920s

Charles Foster, a 91-year-old retired officer who joined the force in 1920, remembered the days of the foot patrol this way:

"I was stationed in the Mission beginning in 1920, and my beat was walking the numbered streets from 11th to 15th, between Market and Harrison. I worked nights mostly, and in some of these alleys women would be coming home from work at two or three in the morning. There weren't the streetlights that there are now either, but nobody was very worried. The city was different then. All the stations were like open houses. I remember just after World War I there was a [financial] panic. A lot of people didn't have jobs, so we all took up a collection at the station and everybody kicked in a dollar or two, and we had a little Christmas party for the neighborhood kids right there in the station. Now you can't even get into a station. They're all like forts these days, but back then we didn't even have bars on the windows."

"There wasn't as much to worry about then. Most of the arrests in my neighborhood were drunks, and sometimes I wouldn't make an arrest for two weeks. Of course, in those days, you had to go into court on your own time if you worked nights."

"But while the city's neighborhoods were relatively peaceful, the Tenderloin and South-of-Market districts were beginning to suffer the ill effects of Prohibition, a law so unpopular that it was nearly impossible to enforce. San Francisco's position as the West Coast's busiest port gave the police a special headache because gangland violence began to accompany smuggled liquor through the Golden Gate and onto the city's streets."

San Francisco had its first taste of the Roaring Twenties on December 5, 1920, when two police detectives were shot and killed by three members of the Howard Street Gang, a group of organized bootleggers operating out of a South-of-Market warehouse.

The detectives, Miles Jackson and Lester Dorman, were the first officers to lie in state in the City Hall rotunda. While the city mourned their passing, department investigators tracked their killers to Sonoma County. Acting on information provided by the San Francisco department, Santa Rosa police apprehended the three suspects and jailed them two days later.

Outrage over the death of the two officers was so great that an angry mob stormed the Santa Rosa Jail that night and, in a replay of San Francisco's vigilantism of 70 years earlier, lynched the three suspects.

Go to Last Tong War in Chinatown.
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