The Dark Side of Police Reform

Gay rights, black neighborhoods, and how reformers paved the way for Eric Garner


The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972, by Christopher Lowen Agee, University of Chicago Press, 256 pages, $45

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To patronize a gay bar in 1950s San Francisco, first you had to find it. As one gay rights activist remembers, "There were no signs…You would walk by a Gay bar 50 times and not know it was a Gay bar." Once inside, you had to remain wary. That gentleman smiling at you might be a flirt, but he might be an undercover cop. Leaving the bar presented its own risks. If you happened to tangle with the neighborhood patrolman, he might jail you for the night on drunkenness charges and send your name to the newspaper. The next morning, writes historian Christopher Lowen Agee in his book The Streets of San Francisco, "arrested bar-goers often went home to find themselves in the press and out of a job."

If you owned a gay bar in 1950s San Francisco, there were ways of protecting your patrons from harassment, thereby maintaining a clientele, but it would cost you. An old-time bartender tells Agee about the lieutenant who came in one morning and explained that he needed $500 a month for—supposedly—the Police Athletic League: "The captain'll be by to collect it next Tuesday at 7:30." That was on top of the captain's monthly expectation of dinner and a prostitute.

In the 1958 film Vertigo, detective Scottie Ferguson visits a college classmate who worries that "San Francisco's changed. The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast." Presumably he was not referring to gay bars, but it was true that San Francisco was changing. Among the city's working-class Irish and Italian families and colorful cadres of artists and poets now lived growing numbers of white-collar professionals and "clean government" crusaders. In the late 1950s, a group of gay bar owners made the shrewd calculation that San Francisco's up-and-coming leaders cared about corruption more than they worried about homosexuality, and they confronted the police chief, who quickly recognized the public relations value of a high-profile crackdown on graft. The so-called "gayola" scandals culminated in 1960 with the month-long criminal trial of two sergeants and two patrolmen accused of demanding payoffs.

Jurors acquitted all four officers, but the fact of the trial itself sent a strong message. Now, in the aftermath of police raids, San Francisco's gay community could count on support from liberal clergy members and attorneys who volunteered their services; from judges, who increasingly were vocally skeptical of anti-gay prosecutions; and from the ascendant San Francisco Chronicle, whose popular columnists lampooned the police as stilted rubes out of step with their lovably libertine city. In response to mounting criticism and narrowing legal options, the San Francisco police chief ended organized raids on gay bars in 1965 and even established a gay community liaison within the police department.

If Agee's story ended there, it would be a happy ending: the triumph of modern, cosmopolitan governance over bribes and billy clubs. But Agee's story does not end there. In a telling detail, Agee notes what happened to two of the officers implicated in the gayola trial. Although they were acquitted in court, the police department disciplined them internally by transferring them to Potrero Station, which had jurisdiction over the poor and predominantly black neighborhood of Hunters Point. Staffed by a motley crew of rookies and cops with a history of trouble, Potrero was, in one officer's description, "the anal sphincter of the police department," and its officers enjoyed free rein to administer beatdowns, or worse, to San Franciscans who were young, black, and poor.

The gayola cops' transfer to Potrero encapsulates the double-edged narrative that structures The Streets of San Francisco. Agee, who teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, chronicles how the traditional regime of decentralized, discretionary, corrupt policing was replaced with the top-down, bureaucratic, and ostensibly more regulated urban police departments that we know today. As a result, many city dwellers feel free to socialize in whatever bars or gender combinations they please. But as last year's Black Lives Matter movement highlighted, the costs and benefits of modern American policing have not been distributed evenly.

Through a series of scandals and court cases in the 1950s and '60s, San Francisco activists curtailed the prerogative of police to enforce gender and sexual norms. Gays, lesbians, beats, and hippies shrewdly aligned themselves with the development agenda of downtown business elites, who envisioned the city as both a modern, sophisticated village for an increasingly white-collar workforce and an avant-garde but still family-friendly tourist destination. In this vision, police officers should not be orchestrating prudish crackdowns on beatnik poetry readings, and they shouldn't be running gritty protection rackets for gambling dens and underground brothels either. A powerful coalition of yuppies, artists, lawyers, and bartenders—a group Agee labels "cosmopolitan liberals"—redefined the role of urban police around an updated version of John Stuart Mill's harm principle, in which "the state was justified in policing only activities that physically or materially harmed others." In 1968, San Francisco's newly elected mayor, the millionaire attorney Joseph Alioto, appointed a commission to investigate "what crime really should be in a modern society." Alioto implied that modern police should leave consenting adults alone and focus instead on "real crime."

While recognizing its achievements, Agee is relentless in exposing the blind spots in Alioto-style urban politics. For one thing, cosmopolitan liberals were never equal-opportunity defenders of free speech, sexual or otherwise. They were most comfortable protecting expression that appealed to mainstream heterosexual men—the emerging Playboy demographic—or that purported to be highbrow art. Agee perceptively diagrams the elisions at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's obscenity trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," in which a parade of scholarly expert witnesses misrepresented Ginsberg's poem as an inscrutable literary puzzle denuded of any sexual charge. By the late 1960s, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) left bookstores and gentlemen's clubs alone, but it continued to arrest peddlers of what Agee calls "low-culture smut" and to harass politically subversive newspapers.

Similarly, Mayor Alioto welcomed brokered negotiations with activists, but happily loosed the "tac squad"—an elite crowd-control unit—against protestors who refused to limit their demonstrations to City Hall–approved venues. When students and other protestors picketed San Francisco State University for four months in late 1968 and early 1969, Alioto's tac squad injured about 80 protestors in the course of making arrests. "If you are very liberal toward dissent," Alioto explained, "you can be a little bit tougher…in terms of law enforcement."

On issues of race and police brutality, San Francisco liberals were at their most myopic. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, black San Franciscans filed scores of complaints about assaults by beat cops, and the city's black newspapers filled their pages with "grisly photographs of the victims' cut and swollen faces." At the same time, black San Francisco suffered from police neglect. One young resident described a community dance where officers turned a blind eye to a flagrantly dangerous situation: "Fights going on…And then this cat pulls out a gun and starts firing. Man, he was five feet away from them cops and they stood there! Just stood looking!" Even as San Francisco's self-congratulatory modern liberals stripped officers of discretion to police obscenity, they continued to tolerate and even encourage unfettered police discretion in black neighborhoods. Alioto made overtures to black community leaders, but described his goal as preventing "hate 'whitey' racism" from "finding outlet in brutal crime"—not protecting blacks themselves from brutality. Cosmopolitan liberals simply did not extend their harm principle to blacks. In their view, gang violence and riots in black neighborhoods justified viewing all blacks as culturally prone to violence and therefore as legitimate targets for tough policing.

Agee nimbly skewers the contradictions of 20th century liberalism, explaining that the same big-city politicians would embrace sexual liberation under the guise of "promoting the arts" one day, then wake up the next day and sic cops with bayonets on an anti-war rally. He is less clear in explaining how the emerging war on drugs fit into the cosmopolitan liberal vision. As Agee notes, by the late 1960s an increasingly lucrative heroin market was generating much of the violence that the SFPD was charged with stamping out, both in the hippie enclave of Haight-Ashbury and in the predominantly black neighborhood of Hunters Point. At the same time, Alioto, backed by the Chronicle, justified aggressive raids on hippie gatherings—complete with tear gas and pepper spray—through cartoonish descriptions of crazed, drug-addled youth who might turn violent. Local activists in the Haight, Agee writes, "fumed" over Alioto's tactics, charging that large-scale raids only "netted narcotics-using 'victims' while failing to address the 'root of this evil,' 'the organized suppliers and dealers of illegal drugs." While it is not surprising that a mainstream figure like Alioto took a hard line on drugs, I would have liked to know more about the grassroots activists' views. Did they extend the cosmopolitan liberals' harm principle to encompass drug users, or did they accept that drugs should be illegal and object only to Alioto's tactics? Was anyone in the cosmopolitan liberal coalition seriously discussing decriminalization?

Readers also might question whether San Francisco's history offers much insight into broader national trends. After all, flower children flocked to the Summer of Love precisely because San Francisco resembled no other place in America. But Agee makes a strong case that it was an early adopter of policing strategies and ideas about urban governance that later took hold in cities throughout the United States. Gay activists in 1970s Chicago followed the San Francisco playbook when they leveraged a payola scandal to gain a foothold in city politics. Alioto's rhetoric about "real crime" was echoed by Seattle's young mayor, Wes Uhlman, who vowed in 1974 that police should be "enforcing felony crimes that do have victims" rather than "wandering around…looking for gays." By the 1980s, Agee suggests, various versions of the "cosmopolitan liberal" coalition wielded influence in many (if not all) American cities. Urban leaders increasingly questioned the use of state power to police sexual behavior but welcomed tough policing so long as it was rationalized by the need to prevent violent crime.

The greatest strength of The Streets of San Francisco is Agee's close attention to the internal dynamics of the San Francisco Police Department. "With their respective references to the 'thin blue line' and the 'pigs of the state,'" Agee writes, "the New Right and New Left both assumed that the police served as a reliable arm of the state." Both groups, Agee argues, failed to realize that the police were not a monolith and that individual police officers had incentives and agendas of their own. The rank and file often bristled at the leadership, and the leadership in turn did not always know what the rank and file were actually doing. Police "sometimes approached street-level decisions with an interest in serving the goals of lawmakers," Agee writes, "but they also considered their own sense of right and wrong, their interest in winning—or compelling—respect from the community, and their desire to achieve their goals in the easiest, least time- and energy-consuming manner." The history that Agee recounts offers important lessons for the current movement to rein in America's hyper-aggressive, overmilitarized police departments. In designing solutions, reformers must grapple not only with formal laws and policies, but also, and perhaps more importantly, with the welter of personal motives and workplace grievances that drive individual officers' day-to-day decisions.

Over the time period that Agee describes, black activists did make some inroads with the San Francisco Police Department. The department established a "police-community relations" unit that, while mostly toothless, did provide some opportunities for community input into police discretion. In the 1960s, the federal war on poverty pumped funds into youth programs and neighborhood organizations, some of whose leaders gained a degree of influence with City Hall—as was famously ridiculed by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 article "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." But the SFPD resisted all attempts to limit or even regulate officers' prerogative to use physical force against black San Franciscans. Tellingly, when one of the department's few black patrolmen publicly admitted to having witnessed incidents of police brutality, he was harassed out of the department.

By the 1970s, the SFPD brass had learned to speak the language of equal opportunity and community participation when it served their own ends, but black San Francisco remained both overpoliced and underprotected. For black activists in the city, Agee writes, "achieving the negative right to be left alone by the government was harder than winning the positive right to government assistance." I was sadly reminded, when I read that line, of Eric Garner's words before he was choked to death by a New York police officer: "Every time you see me, you want to mess with me…Please just leave me alone."