In 1769, Franciscan friar Junipero Serra established the first mission in what is now the state of California. On July 17 of that same year, San Diego was officially founded.
Under Father Serra, village law enforcement was simple; all unmarried citizens were locked in their barracks at night to avoid the temptation of sin. For troublemakers, flogging and time in the stockade was the standard punishment.
In 1821, leadership changed from the Spanish to Emperor Agustin I of Mexico. It took a year for the news to arrive, but on April 20, 1822, the Mexican flag was raised over San Diego.
The village continued to grow under Mexican rule, and by 1829, there were 30 houses outside the mission. On January 1, 1836, San Diego was recognized as a town and given the official name of El Puebla de San Diego de Acala. Because of its desolate location and lack of water by 1838 the population had decreased to a point where the town was stripped of its Puebla status and designated an outward suburb of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles. Despite the small population, San Diego was starting to become a town in serious need of a police force.
The San Diego of 1838 was very different from today. As a frontier town, duels, fights, and murders were common; soldiers battled drifters, who battled everyone else. After several months of witnessing the lawlessness, 26-year-old Antonio Gonzales rounded up eight vigilantes, formed a small police force, and appointed himself chief. The force was informal, loosely organized, and unpaid. As was the custom around what is now the West Coast of the United States, the lawmen did not wear uniforms or badges.
Antonio Gonzales and his men kept the peace until 1845, when the U.S. Army took over as the local law enforcement.
Their version of keeping the peace was simple - troublemakers not run out of town were either hanged or shot.
On March 27,1850, a county charter was passed, and Sidney Livingston was appointed city marshal of San Diego. Two months later he was released from his duties when the City of San Diego was officially incorporated. The incorporation established San Diego to be governed by a common council and General Joshua Bean was elected as the first mayor. Along with five council members, it would be up to Bean to make something of the dusty little U.S. town. 1850 also saw Agoston Haraszathy, a Hungarian count, elected as not only county sheriff but also tax collector and city marshal. As the council saw it the marshal was to collect taxes, issue gambling permits, serve as a social worker, and round up stray animals. The council also allowed him to earn extra money by digging graves. If there was time, he was also expected to enforce the law.
As marshal, Haraszathy appointed Richard Freeman as his deputy, making him the first African American lawman in California.
In the summer of 1850, Marshal Haraszathy began construction of a $5,000 jail at what is now 2300 Congress Street. His first attempt was so poorly constructed that the mud brick and straw facility melted in the first heavy rain. Another $2,000 was put into the project, but the rebuilt jail was no better than the first. Within hours of being arrested, the first inmate — the mayor’s brother, 25-year-old Roy Bean — escaped by digging through the walls with a pocketknife. Roy Bean would be the only inmate the jail would ever hold. Decades later, Bean would establish himself in Langford, Texas, as the “Law West of the Pecos” when he set up a courthouse that doubled as a liquor store and casino.
Haraszathy had no better luck collecting taxes when he started a war with Indians in Mission Valley. During this war, Deputy Freeman was killed in the line of duty. Before the war’s end, though, Haraszathy left to serve in the California State Assembly and later as assayer of the first U.S. Mint on the West Coast. He also established the California wine industry.
The city went bankrupt as a result of the jail debacle and, on January 30, 1852, the State of California repealed the city charter effectively causing the city to cease to exist.
It would be 10 years before San Diego would appoint another city marshal.
With all city services officially suspended, the quality of life quickly began to suffer. A grand jury report of April 1852 reported the streets filled with garbage and human waste. Dead animals rotted in the streets. A foul stench filled the air. The New York Times carried an even more colorful description - they referred to the city as “a flea infested cesspool and the most godforsaken rathole on Earth.”
With marshals no longer policing the town and the sheriff not enforcing the law within the city limits, crime quickly returned to the streets. To make matters worse, to the north, in Los Angeles, the city formed a 100-member police force known as the Rangers.
In typical Old West irony, Roy Bean, the fugitive from San Diego, was now a Los Angeles Ranger. As a Ranger, Bean dealt with the same things going on in San Diego — murder, robbery and mayhem — only on a much larger scale. In one 24-hour period, Los Angeles, at the time a city of fewer than 1,600 people, had 18 murders. It ended 1853 with 415 killings, an incredible statistic even by today’s standards.
Since the goal of the Rangers was to eliminate crime, not reform those committing it, some of the desperados not killed in the fighting were chased south and wound up in San Diego. Within a few years of the bankruptcy San Diego was starting to look like 1838 all over again — this time with a lot more people involved. Decent citizens hid in their homes as gangs of thugs armed with pistols and Bowie knives walked the streets.
Law and order took a small step toward a comeback when, in 1860, the county authorized the building of an iron cage measuring six feet by nine feet behind City Hall to serve as a jail. Since there was no bed in the cage, nor a limit to the number of people the cage could house, inmates were forced to sleep on the floor or, when it was crowded, standing up.
By 1862, the financial state of San Diego had improved to the point where a marshal could be appointed and a law enforcement presence in the city could be reestablished. For the next 17 years, marshals would be at the beck and call of city officials who made the top priority tax collection and building of roads.
In the name of keeping the peace, an ordinance was passed barring Mexicans and Indians from coming within a half mile of the city limits.
By 1879, the population of the city was over 2,000. The job of marshal was not a paid position, and to no one’s surprise, there were no applicants for the job. Instead of changing the working conditions, the city abolished the position entirely. From 1879 until 1885, the San Diego County Sheriff enforced the law in the city.
By 1885, the population of the city reached 25,000, and the city averaged almost one homicide per day. To deal with the violence, the city marshal’s office was reestablished, with 25 men who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and had no formal training. Despite wearing shiny seven-point stars on their chests that read “San Diego Police,” these men were still nothing more than armed tax collectors.
When they did try to enforce the law, they often wound up incurring the wrath of citizens and business owners with other interests. One saloon owner, the famous Wyatt Earp, told Deputy Marshal Campbell, “You’ll be stepping in your coffin next time you come in my saloon.”
By 1889, the population of San Diego was now more than 40,000, and crime was everywhere. Legitimate businesses operated next to opium dens and whorehouses 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People began to carry guns openly, and marshals were nowhere to be found. The new, bawdy district was called the Stingaree, and with theft, murder, fights, and robberies, it bestowed on San Diego all the characteristics of a circus gone out of control. A letter in the San Diego Union that year read, “I would rather live in peace and security in the fitful climate of the east than to have a bullet accidentally lodged in my body when walking out to enjoy the balmy air of San Diego.” Obviously the city had yet to become the tourist destination it is today.
The answer would come in the form of a new city charter with a municipal police department, whose officers’ primary responsibility was fighting crime. With lawmen now officially police officers, the job of collecting taxes, rounding up stray animals, and building bridges would be the duties of someone else.
The requirements to be a San Diego police officer in 1889 were fairly simple: applicants had to live in the city; be at least five feet, nine inches tall; weigh at least 150 pounds; be of good moral character; and be a white male. Of the 12 officers originally hired, 8 were Republicans and 4 were Democrats.
In addition to creating the San Diego Police Department (SDPD), the new charter expanded the city from 12 to 76 square miles and created a five-member police commission who would make appointments of new police officers based on merit.
The first San Diego police station was located in City Hall over the fire department’s Engine Company One. The new officers took to the streets at 7 a.m. on June 1 and worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The first day off would not be granted until 1891.
New officers were assigned walking beats in Downtown, Golden Hill, Old Town, and Coronado. The starting salary for the new officers was $80 per month. It is interesting to note that in 1937, some 48 years later, officers were making only $120 per month. Officers were required to purchase their own uniforms at a cost of $42.50, and they were required to be worn at all times when in public, on or off duty.
Of the previous marshals, three were hired as SDPD officers. Another former deputy marshal, Jose Cota, would be hired as the department’s first Hispanic officer one year later.
Despite the relationship with the city marshals of old, these new officers had a different approach to law enforcement. Armed with new powers and a single purpose, they actually enforced the law. Within months the press was praising the work of the officers and even went so far as to say how professional the new department was. The new look of the officers had the newspaper commenting, “People are going out of their way to get arrested just to be seen with these fine officers.”
By the end of 1889, the officers had regained control of the city, but long hours and other working conditions were beginning to take their toll. Of the 12 officers originally hired that May, 5 had already resigned.
SDPD staffing numbers would rise and fall based on the economic conditions of the city, and from day one, San Diego would find itself with one of the smallest police departments in the country in terms of ratio to the city population.
In 1899, Edward “Ned” Bushyhead was appointed as San Diego’s sixth police chief. What made the appointment interesting was that Bushyhead was a Cherokee Indian, and there was a state law prohibiting minorities from testifying against whites in a court of law.
In 1913–1914, labor riots were so out of control that all of the jails in the county were filled with protestors. In response to the unrest, SDPD officers found themselves working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The pressure was so great that one-quarter of the department resigned.
By 1917, the department was diversified, employing African Americans, women, and Chinese American police officers - this in a time when women were not allowed to vote in U.S. elections, yet were investigating cases and carrying badges and guns.
Around this time, the SDPD Identification Bureau became one of the first units in the world to use fingerprinting as a form of identification.
1917 also saw the office of Chief of Police filled five times; the reason was a continuing struggle between City Hall and the SDPD over who would control the city’s police officers.
By 1923, automobiles began to become a part of the police department, although officers were required to buy their own vehicles. As a result, many officers opted to work on the cheaper but more dangerous motorcycle squad.
On January 12,1927, San Diego experienced its first major police shootout, when a deranged man broke into a house at 1800 Fort Stockton Drive and shot several people inside. Peppering the house with machine gunfire and tear gas, the police managed to kill the gunman, and the siege ended.
The next challenge to arise was the Great Depression. Faced with a budget so tight that 20 percent of the department staff members were laid off, officers still found ways to get new uniforms, badges, and equipment; build a pistol range; and buy new cars.
They also voted themselves a pay cut so no coworkers would be laid off.
As San Diego dealt with smuggling issues brought on by Prohibition, the city experienced its first machine-gun murder, but it was not related to the eastern U.S. crime syndicate. The May 20, 1929, case was a simple robbery of two couriers from the Aqua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana. An exhaustive investigation led to the arrest of two suspects in Los Angeles; however, the $80,000 that was stolen was never recovered.
In 1932, the department introduced a communications system. The system consisted of five cars equipped with one-way radios operating 18 hours a day. It would be 15 more years before every San Diego police car was equipped with a two-way radio.
The 1930s also saw the introduction of a new city charter expressly forbidding council influence over the police department. It would be a death blow to the political influence that once had its grip on the city’s police.
In 1938 the city approved a new, state-of-the-art police headquarters at 801 West Market Street. With ceramic tile roofs, fountains, and palm trees, the building looked like no police station ever had. (From 1947 until 1952, the station also housed a four-lane bowling alley.)
The department moved to a larger facility in 1987, but in 1999, the National Register of Historic Places recognized the headquarters as a national landmark.
Today, it is one of only two police facilities on the West Coast, and only 1 of 25 in the United States to ever receive such a prestigious honor.
World War II was a huge turning point for the SDPD. In addition to having to deal with one-third of its officers drafted into the military, the population of the city doubled. Once again officers worked 12–18 hours a day, seven days a week. To further compound issues, officers could not use headlights or radios on patrol and could not drive a police car more than 25 miles per shift.
Housing shortages in the city were so severe that many people were living in converted streetcars or sleeping in hotel beds in shifts. Sailors and marines flooded downtown bars 24 hours a day and there were fights galore. Rationing caused citizens to struggle for even basic necessities such as gasoline or a pair of shoes for their children. The cops were no different. In addition to the struggles at home, they faced it all at work as well.
World War II ended in 1945. In the same year, a police school was begun for new officers. No longer would recruits be just handed a badge and a gun and told to go fight crime; they would receive formal training. New rules were instituted forbidding drinking on duty, swearing, picking up dates, and gratuities. It was the birth of the modern professional police officer.
The 1950s again saw the issue of low staffing brought to the forefront. However, rather than hire additional officers, the department adopted a one-officer-per-car policy. Suddenly it appeared to citizens as though the department had doubled in size. The low ratio of officers to residents would be left for other administrations to handle.
Unrest was common all across the United States in the 1960s, and San Diego was no different. In response to individuals throwing rocks and bottles at officers, Chief Elmer Jansen ordered all uniformed officers below the rank of lieutenant to wear helmets while on duty. To further add to the discomfort, the chinstraps of the helmets were required to be buckled at all times. Violation of the order meant a two-day suspension.
San Diego played host to what was at the time the largest police shootout in U.S. history when on April 8, 1965, a gunman entered the Hub Jewelry and Loan Company at Fifth Avenue and F Street downtown and murdered the store owner. Responding officers were greeted with gunfire, and during the shootout, the gunman and police fired more than 1,000 rounds. The event was so out of control that off-duty officers who saw it on television came to the scene, emptied their guns into the building, and left. The shootout ended when Sergeant A. D. Brown went into the building armed with a shotgun. As he searched the building, Brown heard multiple clicks behind him. The suspect was pulling the trigger of his gun, but fortunately, the gun was loaded with the wrong ammo, and Sergeant Brown shot the suspect. The lack of an organized response to this incident led to the creation of what is now the special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team.
Women were first assigned uniformed patrol duties in 1973. In 1976, the SDPD promoted Connie Borchers (Van Putten) to the rank of sergeant, the first woman to achieve this rank in the department’s history.
The same year also saw the creation of one of the most dangerous assignments in the history of policing, the Border Area Robbery Force. In response to violence against undocumented immigrants along the San Ysidro border, a group of SDPD officers dressed as immigrants and patrolled the canyon. The group was involved in many shootouts, resulting in the deaths of a number of bandits. Thankfully no officers were killed. The task force later became the subject of the best-seller “Lines and Shadows” by Joseph Wambaugh.
On September 25, 1978, San Diego experienced the worst airline disaster in U.S. history (to that point), when a Boeing 727 collided in midair with a Cessna 172 and crashed in a North Park residential neighborhood. Several houses were hit by flying debris and, in all, 144 people in the plane and on the ground were killed. A nearby high school gymnasium was quickly turned into a morgue. To further augment staffing, police academy recruits were brought in for search and rescue as well as crowd control. Despite it being their first day on the job and the unbelievable carnage, none of the recruits quit. On January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer, leaned out the window of her San Carlos home and opened fire at an elementary school across the street. The end result was two dead and eight wounded including a police officer. Spencer later said, "I just did it for the fun of it. I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day. I shot a pig and I think and I want to shoot more."
Today, Spencer is serving a life term and has been denied parole multiple times.
As the 1970s drew to a close, SDPD began to experience a loss of police officers at a rate never before seen in its history. In addition to officers leaving the department for better-paying jobs, they were also being murdered. By the mid-1980s, San Diego held the dubious distinction of being not only the deadliest city for U.S. police officers (per capita) but also its lowest staffed relative to the size of the city’s population.
On July 18, 1984, James Oliver Huberty, a 41-year-old, unemployed security guard went on a shooting spree in a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro. Twenty-one people were murdered and 20 were injured in the tragic event before Huberty was killed by a police sniper. Despite suffering serious injuries from multiple gunshot wounds, one of the survivors, Alberto Leos, a 16 year old restaurant employee at the time of the massacre, went on to become an SDPD sergeant.
In 1986, the department took a huge step forward in modernization when it acquired its first police helicopter.
Two years later, shoulder patches were added to the police uniform, marking the first time in almost 100 years that SDPD officers wore an agency-specific patch as an insignia. That same year, the department returned to black and white police cars after a 20-year span of using an all white color
The 1990s saw an aggressive push to train officers in new and innovative safety tactics, effectively lowering the officer mortality rate to the lowest in the United States for a large city.
In perhaps one of the wildest police chases in history, on May 17, 1995, Shawn Nelson, an unemployed plumber with a military background, stole a National Guard M-60 tank and drove through the Mesa College area, leading police on a nationally televised chase. The chase ended when Nelson crashed the tank. Despite heavy property damage from smashed cars, no innocent bystanders were injured.
In 1996, the department returned to blue uniforms. The old tan uniforms had been worn for almost 49 years, making it the longest-standing uniform style ever worn by the SDPD.
By the the 21st century, SDPD bore little resemblance to the police force of 1889. With more than 1,700 sworn officers, 500 support personnel, and over 1,000 volunteers, the ethnic makeup and gender diversity of the department far more accurately reflects that of the community it serves. SDPD personnel can look back with pride at their accomplishments. The department has put serial killers behind bars; provided security for multiple Super Bowls and a Republican National Convention; and has endured riots, shootouts, two world wars, and everything else that was thrown at it along the way. .