No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Law Enforcement in the 1970’s
Law enforcement in the 1970’s was one of the worst times for officers, when speaking about injury and death they faced. During that decade, the US average over 220 deaths a year. Considering that only in recent years, law enforcement ranks across the country have eclipsed 770,000, what those numbers may have been between 40 and 50 years ago, had to have been much smaller. However, while historians, sociologists, and other academic types try to conclude on what sparked this rise in violence, there is one community that faced the brunt of it early, and often, and may be an open window to explaining why, from an overall perspective, officers were being killed at such a high rate in the 70’s.
Post-War Era San Francisco
Not so charmingly referred to as SFPD’s ‘Bloody Era,’ 1967 to 1972 was a time when San Francisco was at violent coup with itself. Once a blue-collar town, housing miners, railroad and dock workers, fishermen, as the post-war era came, the fabric of the community changed. Counterculture groups began laying roots in the city, while at the same time, M. Justin Herman, a public administrator with an extensive background in urban redevelopment, was first placed in charge of the San Francisco’s regional office of Housing and Home Finance Agency, and then later the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. These two facts of San Francisco factor well into the situation that played out, but it’s fair to say that they can’t be blamed for all that happened. Mr. Justin Herman’s aim in redevelopment, was to tear out structures that were not desirable, and replace them new, modern buildings. At face value, his plan seems typical of many other redevelopers of his time. In San Francisco however, his plan inadvertently targeted neighborhoods that mostly minority residents lived in, and specifically, much of the original population of black residents in San Francisco were displaced, including into other communities in the Bay Area, Oakland specifically. Herman’s time in these two jobs went from 1954 until his death in 1971, and while he had a very good plan for remaking San Francisco into a modern, efficient, and attractive looking city, he ended causing so much hardship for others, that many negative attitudes about government in the local area began to form. Herman was once compared to having the same status as the devil, in the homes of Bay Area black residents, which is shame for both him, and for those that he affected through his efforts. The groups of residents that were affected lost not only their homes, but their sense of identity and dignity. For one, they had been citizens of San Francisco for all their lives, and all at once, not only were their homes taken from them, but their ability to stay in the city. As new houses and apartments went up, so did the prices. It’s clear that Herman did not intend to target minority residents. But the unintended consequence of his work made it appear that not only his office, but the entire San Francisco government, was gentrifying their community. Hannibal Williams, a pastoral apprentice at the time in his church, quickly became the spokesperson of the Western Addition Community Organization, which was speaking out and protesting urban renewal. Williams was the first person to make the references to Herman being like the devil, and he worked hard to stop any efforts of renewal, which even in the years after, he saw as an effort by San Francisco leaders to remove black citizens from the city.
Meanwhile, some people within counterculture groups saw this playing out, and began supporting efforts to stop the redevelopment. Infamous cult leader, Jim Jones, a member of the Communist Party, and leader the People’s Temple, moved his cult into Ukiah, CA, some 100 miles north of San Francisco, but not before long he had a chapter located there, and he also took up the fight against urban renewal, and even later, both he and Williams were selected for leadership roles in San Francisco’s housing offices after this period.
We won’t go into the backstory of Jones, but his story is easy to find. His history as a fighter against segregation is well documented, but the other part that sticks about him is the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse that many of his followers spoke out about, suffering at the hands of Jones. Williams himself detests Jones now, but it’s also fair to say that Williams invited Jones into the fight, if for no other reason, have someone he felt was even more charismatic than him, to take on this problem of urban renewal. Unfortunately, much of Jones’ rhetoric informed a very low view of modern US political structures, and government. Jones had been targeted early in his life during the McCarthy Hearings, and it was from that point that he decided he would exact a certain revenge on the US government, in one way or another. His influence on minority populations in San Francisco during this time frame that we are speaking about is well documented, and while the correlations between his expressed views and the results of those views have not been fully explored, there is certain fall out from his influence on others, whether he was a positive or negative influence that factored into the years 1967 to 1972.
Meanwhile, members of the emerging Latino community in San Francisco, particularly young males, felt they were harassed by police, and were automatically assumed to be causing trouble, just at the mere sight of one or a group standing on a sidewalk. Counterculture groups also started supporting this community, to further the message that the San Francisco government was targeting minorities. This too played into the era.
Additionally, San Francisco was a major breeding ground for opposition to the Vietnam War. The Department of Defense used San Francisco as a place to discharge lots of military members who were deemed unqualified for service during their tour, which counterculture groups saw yet another population to support, and infiltrate with their messaging. Most military members being discharged at the time were primarily for being identified as homosexual, which were banned from military service at the time. As these groups, with separate negative perceptions of government came together in one place, the setting in San Francisco was most certainly a hostile one, and for sure violent.
Officer Herman L. George was as four-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, he was typing a report at the Hunters Point substation on November 13th, 1967, when three men opened fire on the station with a .30 caliber rifle. Officer George was shot six times. Another officer was wounded in this shooting as well. The criminals were never caught. Officer George died on December 16th, 1967 from his wounds. George’s shooting is significant for several reasons. For one, it is the first line of duty death in the series of deaths SFPD faced in this period. It is also the first line of duty death the agency incurred over a span of nearly 18 months. It was particularly brazen, as the suspects chose to carry out the shooting while on foot, and in the wide open. Officer George is remembered fondly by his family, in numerous memorial sites, and it is clear he was a good guy who took pride in raising his family.
Officer Peter F. McElligott was a two-year veteran of SFPD, when on June 19th, 1968, he and his partner located two robbery suspects in Golden Gate Park. The criminals had robbed two gas stations prior to the encounter. When the criminals saw McElligott and his partner driving behind them, they made a U-turn, sped out of the park and continued down the road. At some point, the criminals stopped their car, McElligott and his partner approached the vehicle, at which point the criminals took aim at both officers, killing McElligott with likely the first shot, and severely wounding his partner, who returned fire, causing the two criminals to run their vehicle into a tree. The criminals ran from the scene, but were caught by responding officers not long after. McElligott’s extended family remembers his loss vividly, wishing he was still here.
Officer Rene G. Lacau was a 19-year veteran of SFPD, when on April 15th, 1969, he responded to a vehicle prowl call on Golden Gate Avenue. He located the criminal, but they became violent with Officer Lacau, who in the process began suffering from a heart attack. It took four additional officers to subdue the criminal. His family to this day still memorializes him.
Officer Joseph Brodnik, who we’re not able to verify his length of service with SFPD, on May 1st, 1969 was working a plainclothes assignment with his partner, Officer Paul McGoran, as part of the burglary unit. They stopped two Latino youths who they found carrying a television into an Italianate style multi-unit house on Alvarado Street. The two criminals were part of a larger group, seven in total, who had just committed a daytime burglary, and were themselves, a major factor why SFPD had employed undercover officers on the street to begin with. As the officers began to detain the two, a fight broke out, which led to the other five arriving, and assaulting both Officers Brodnik and McGoran. It has been reported that Officer Brodnik was unarmed for this assignment, why that is, has not been discussed. One of the criminals grabbed McGoran’s gun, shooting Brodnik, which led to his death almost instantly. McGoran was beaten severely, and left on the sidewalk with Brodnik. Responding officers eventually caught six of the criminals. The one outstanding was believed to have fled the country, back to El Salvador, where he was from. The other six faced trial, but were acquitted after McGoran was painted as unreliable by defense, and a counterculture group yelled threats at deliberating jurors. The criminal who was thought to have shot Brodnik, was later arrested for an unrelated charge and died in prison.
Officer Eric Zelms, also unable to verify his length of service with SFPD, on January 1, 1970th, was surprised by two burglars, who attacked him, gained control of his service revolver, and killed him. They continued to run from additional officers, getting into a gunfight, one was wounded, both were captured, and were only given 10 year sentences for the murder.
Sergeant Brian McDonnell was a 20-year veteran of SFPD, when on February 16th, 1970, he was working at the Park Police Station, which was bombed. On February 18, 1970, Sergeant McDonnell passed away due to the wounds inflicted. No arrests were ever made in this case, though it is highly publicized that the counterculture group, Weather Underground, was responsible for the attack, and many major news agencies reported that Howard Machtinger, Jeff Jones, and Bernardine Dohrn, were responsible for the attack. It’s notable that Dohrn has since gone on to become a professor of law. It’s also notable that the group these three led, Weather Underground, was responsible for other officer deaths in other parts of the country, as well as numerous injuries to officers.
Officer Richard Radetich, was a four-year veteran of SFPD, when on June 19th, 1970, was writing a parking citation in his patrol car, when he was ambushed by an unknown criminal. A suspect was arrested, was charged, but the case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence. This shooting raised flags with SFPD Detectives, who stated it was clear that whoever carried it out was targeting a police officer simply because of their profession, because Officer Radetich had developed no bad relations with the public, and had no arrests that were noted as threatening to him.
Officer Harold Hamilton, was a six-year veteran of SFPD, when on October 19th, 1970 he responded to a bank robbery call, and as he entered the bank, was shot and killed. His partner fired back, wounding he robber, who was released after 17 years in prison, but later died from the wounds he suffered in the incident. Officer Hamilton’s funeral was likely the moment all the murders began to be connected in meaningful ways, as the Black Liberation Army, yet another counterculture group, planted a bomb at the entry of the church where his services were being conducted. Several officers, including those from other agencies, were injured, but none died. No civilians died either, thankfully. The BLA was also responsible for many other murders of law enforcement throughout the country, as well as countless injuries to officers.
Officer Charles D. Logasa, was a seven-year veteran of SFPD, when on February 11th, 1971, he died in a helicopter accident. The crew was attempting to reach the landing pad at Lake Merced, but missed and landed in the lake.
Officer Arthur D. O’Guinn, was a seven-year veteran of SFPD, when on July 30th, 1971, he was shot and killed while making a traffic stop. Two criminals were arrested later, convicted of second degree murder, and yet were paroled in 1978 and 1979.
Sergeant John Victor Young, also unable to verify his length of service with SFPD, on August 29th, 1971 was shot and killed by members of BLA, who placed a shotgun into an opening between the bullet proof glass at the Ingleside District Police Station lobby and office area. The members also killed a civilian member of SFPD in the attack, and then ran back into the street, got into a car and fled the area. Sergeant Young and the civilian employee may have been the only people at the station at the time, because all officers assigned to the station had responded to a bomb explosion, also suspected to be the doing of BLA. While investigating this crime, multiple members of BLA have been charged, dismissed, and refiled again, and several members have testified against other members, provided details about how the incidents were planned, carried out, and were supposed to be even bigger than what played out, but that certain members didn’t “commit” to their roles in the activities. And as it turned out, this case confirmed many suspicions about the sheer amount of bank robberies that SFPD were encountering during this era, the bulk of which were planned operations of BLA, to finance their overall activities.
Sergeant Code W. Beverly, Jr. was a seven-year veteran of SFPD, when on January 28th, 1972, as he was walking with his partner to their assigned post, when a criminal used a rifle to shoot and kill Sergeant Beverly, and injure his partner. This murder is typically not related to the others in the telling of history, but the reason we include it is quite simply the proximity of time, and the overall circumstances that went into the motives of the criminal. The criminal had lost his job, but also received several traffic citations over time, which led to his license being revoked. The criminal decided that drinking all day was in order, and as his frustration with his personal situation continued to grow, and when he saw the two officers walking, he decided that shooting them was the best solution to his problem. The criminal was convicted of first degree murder, and then died in prison on February 19th, 2001. We will never know all that went into his decision-making process, but considering that the era he was living in was flooded with news of officers being killed in shootings daily, that one factor in his decision was the desensitizing effect that the crimes of a few groups caused. Because some outsiders might look at all that was going on, not just in San Francisco, but around the country and think to themselves, “What’s one more dead officer?”
From Officer George’s death, to Sergeant Beverly’s death is a span of four years, two months, and 15 days. Twelve of SFPD’s finest were killed in that span of time, in some of the most unimaginable circumstances. Easily, nine of these murders could have been prevented if the people responsible to responsibility for their own actions, rather than try to infuriate matters. And the lack of justice afforded most of these officers does not go unnoticed to us. And what sticks out to us is that judgements in many of these situations seem to follow the social considerations of the time, rather than fact and law. While it may be that in some of these murders, there was circumstantial evidence, you couldn’t look at 12 homicides and say, all of them lacked evidence equivalent to dismissal. All the people responsible for these travesties have not only the family members to own up to, but in the end, time will make clear what they failed to do, or refused to.
We did mention that the some of the groups responsible for these homicides also killed numerous other officers around the country. They are Officer Donald W. Sager, Baltimore Police Department, Patrolmen Waverly M. Jones and Joseph A. Piagentini, New York City Police Department, Officer Ronald L. Turner, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Officer James R. Greene, Atlanta Police Department, Officers Rocco W. Laurie and Gregory P. Foster, NYPD, Trooper Werner Foerster, New Jersey State Police, Officer Sidney L. Thompson New York City Transit Police Department, Patrolman William R. Templin, Penn Central Railroad Police Department, Officer John G. Scarangella, NYPD, Sergeant Edward J. O’Grady, Jr. and Officer Waverly L. Brown, Nyack Police Department, Lieutenant Ted C. Elmore, Catawba County Sheriff’s Office, Officer John F. Frey, Oakland Police Department, Officer Thomas E. Johnson, Metro Nashville Police Department, Officer Nelson K. Sasscer, Santa Ana Police Department, Patrolmen Frank G. Rappaport and John J. Gilhooly, Chicago Police Department, Officer James T. Sackett, Sr., St. Paul Police Department, Patrolman William A. Miscannon, Toledo Police Department, Officer Glenn E. Smith, Detroit Police Department, Corrections Sergeant Brent Miller, Louisiana Department of Corrections, Cadet Alfred E. Harrell, Patrolmen Paul A. Persigo and Philip J. Coleman, Sr., Sergeant Edwin C. Hosli, Sr., and Deputy Superintendent Louis J. Sirgo, New Orleans Police Department, Park Ranger Kenneth C. Patrick, National Park Service, Correctional Officer Jerry Sanders, CDCR, Officer Daniel J. Faulkner, Philadelphia Police Department, and Deputy Sheriff Ricky L. Kinchen, Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. In total, 33 sworn personnel, and one civilian member were killed by members of the groups that started their violent acts in San Francisco, and carried them out across the country. These groups proved that violent rhetoric, meant to engage raw emotions, fear, and hate will provoke so many to do such harm. Be it by plan, or by circumstance, we can’t spell it out anymore, that what we are seeing today echoes much of what went on in this era, across the country. We remember history, and how deadly it was for officers who were all literally doing their jobs, when they were attacked, unprovoked.
If any of these circumstances sound familiar to modern times, it’s because they are. What we are experiencing now is not at all different from what we experienced then. Perhaps some motivations have changed, certain logic, or illogic, has come and gone, but the ideas and results now are far too like what we have experienced in the past four years. We can only hope that wiser heads will prevail much sooner than it took during ‘The Era.’
One quote attributed to Jo-Ellen Radetich, the sister of Richard Radetich speaks volumes to the issue at hand. “There wasn’t just one victim when my brother was killed, this killer hurt an entire family. We are still hurting. I have lost a brother and close friend. His daughter lost both parents. His grandchildren will never get to know him. The tragedy gets worse as the years go on. It’s a wound that never heals.” (San Francisco Gate)
To Ms. Radetich, and all of those hurt by ‘the era,’ we are deeply sorry for your loss, and while we could never attempt to heal these all too fresh wounds, we surely won’t forget a single officer who died during this time, nor the amount of injustice that your families were forced to bear.
In memory of all officers lost from 1967 to 1972. We remember who you were, and we won’t forget who, and why you died. But we will also remember how you lived.