Detective Reginald Stuart Townsend only served on the San Diego Police Department for four years however his significance to SDPD history is monumental.
Hired in 1915, Townsend was SDPD’s first black detective and only its second black officer. Special Patrolman Frank McCarter was hired in 1908.
Like every other investigator of the era, Detective Townsend had duties investigating crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
Shortly after being hired, Chief of Police Keno Wilson gave Detective Townsend an additional assignment – serve as a bodyguard to a man tasked with cleaning up the vice ridden Stingaree once and for all.
The department had already tried mass arrests to clean up the district without much success. The most publicized raid occurred on November 10, 1912, when the police department raided the district and arrested 138 prostitutes, at least half under age 17.
Since the paddy wagon had a ten-passenger limit, officers were forced to walk most of the women to the police station. Newspapers recalled, “If one lagged behind or threatened to bolt, an officer would blow a whistle and shake his billy club at the offender. There was not a single case of resistance or protest,” wrote the Union. “The women laughed their way to the station good naturedly… [they] treated the round-up as a joke.”
For the next seven hours, Chief Wilson interviewed the women one at a time in his office. He sat at a table with deputy city attorney D.F. Glidden and an immigration officer. Chief Wilson created a dossier for each one. He asked their names, where they were from, and would they prefer to reform or leave San Diego the next day?
Many gave their last name as “Doe.” The younger ones said they were born in 1888, so they wouldn’t be arrested as juveniles, though about 70 percent were between 13 and 17 years old. Chief Wilson estimated that at least nine-tenths of the women had come to San Diego in the last six months, since the closing of Los Angeles’s red-light district.
In summarizing the event San Diego Police Department Historian Pliny Castanian later wrote, “Not a single ‘John’ was taken into custody. Prostitution in those days was strictly a female crime.”
Telling the women to leave town proved to be a very temporary solution. If the problem was going to be forever eradicated the opium dens and the brothels needed to be closed forever.
Unfortunately many of those vice oriented businesses were owned by city leaders and local power brokers. If they were going to be shut down it would take enforcement of state health code laws – something city leaders had no control over.
Townsend and Detective Walter Weymouth were paired with San Diego County Health Inspector Walter Bellon – a man many regarded as the most hated man in San Diego. Bellon had been working for several years to close down the seedy district and had been receiving death threats as a result.
After the demise of Yankee Doodle and Pacific Squadron saloons — a strike at the heart of the Stingaree — the health department began receiving enough phone threats and hate mail to concern Chief Wilson. Even Bellon felt the pressure: “Things began to get real hot…. Time was running out for me, if they didn’t pull me off. The waterfront supported some tough characters, and my hide was going to be stretched, then tanned.”
One morning Bellon found two men in his office, both over six feet and 200 pounds.
“From now on, we’re traveling together,” said Detective Weymouth, who looked and dressed so much like Bellon they could pass for twins.
“Thing’s can’t be that bad,” said Bellon.
Townsend interjected, “From what Keno briefed us on, we must be careful.”
It took him a few days for Bellon to adjust to his companions — he called them his “small army” — but also to the gravity of his job, since “danger began to jell.”
The trio served final notices to brothels at 423, 514, and 775 on waterfront row. The owner, Joseph Curby, was the financial backbone of vice along the shoreline clearning at least $50,000 a year, tax free. The stocky man in his mid-50s, who “guarded his feminine business with a strong arm,” stopped them at the gate. Aiming a .45 caliber horse pistol between Bellon’s eyes he said, “Any closer, I shoot.”
The pistol was “a sign language we all knew,” Bellon recalled. “The man was mad, steaming.” So they said “adios” and backed away.
Bellon may have survived his first two years in part because he could read how far to push a person. His protectors, however, advocated blunter tactics. "Let’s go back right now", Weymouth urged, and “throw the old boy in the jug.” After all, he’d pointed a loaded firearm at police officers.
“But what if Curby’s trigger-finger became too happy?” Bellon asked.
“Then we shoot it out!”
“We’re 600 pounds of sinew, bone, and lard, total weight,” Bellon retorted. Such a big target, Curby couldn’t miss. “Let’s think on it.”
That night, Bellon decided to pull back. “We had lots of time in our favor, so we’d just play along.”
For the next 30 days, Bellon, Weymouth, and Townsend paid Curby a social call every afternoon at 2:00. While the owner held them at gunpoint, they spoke about having to tear the buildings down. Bellon even offered to move all three houses to any other lot Curby owned in San Diego, free of charge. “We have no intention of destroying your lucrative business,” Bellon said “Just doing our job.”
Within days, Curby’s prostitutes began to migrate uptown, into the Stingaree. By week’s end, he was alone.
“When we arrived on the 13th day,” Bellon writes, “he was beaten.”
For a year Bellon, Townsend and Weymouth were a force to be reckoned with. Then tragedy struck. On March 15, 1916, Bellon, Townsend and Weymouth met down at the waterfront around midnight for a raid. At 2:30 a.m., their work done, Bellon climbed into his old Model T and drove home. Weymouth got into his car and when turned the corner at Eighth and K, a man crept out of the shadows, screamed angry gibberish, ran up, and shot Weymouth through the abdomen. Weymouth went down. By the time he reached the Agnew Sanitarium, doctors and the next day’s newspapers gave him no chance to live.
Detective Weymouth spent several months in critical condition — the bullet tore 16 holes through his intestines — Weymouth eventually recovered and moved away.
“Had the gunman intended Weymouth as his victim,” asks Bellon’s biographer Randy Van Horn, “or had he shot the wrong Walter?” The two men not only looked alike, they wore the same bulky suits, vests, and dark-brown hats.
Many years later, Bellon wondered if he was, indeed, the target. “There was a time during the many cleanup raids [when] Weymouth was taken for the health inspector and I perhaps as the flatfoot.” For every person who knew who Weymouth was, there were dozens who wanted Walter Bellon dead.
With the Stingaree closed Reginald Townsend returned to his regular duties but by then the world had changed. Chief Keno Wilson had been fired and the female and minority officers he had hired during his tenure were also being forced out. WWI slowed down the firings but Townsend was ultimately let go in 1919.