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SF Then/Now: Policing a Vice-Filled San Francisco 100 Years Ago

Written by Liz LindqwisterPublished Aug. 25, 2022 • 11:00am
An inset of a black and white image of a youth and a San Francisco Department Policeman at the corner of 1900 Divisadero Street at Pine Street in San Francisco sometime in 1920 and a color background image of a muni bus passing through the same intersection on Friday, July 9, 2022.
An inset of a black and white image of a youth and a San Francisco Department Policeman at the corner of 1900 Divisadero Street at Pine Street in San Francisco sometime in 1920 and a color background image of a muni bus passing through the same intersection on Friday, July 29, 2022. Courtesy OpenSFHistory/the Western Neighborhoods Project ; Camille Cohen/The Standard

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In this 1920s photograph, provided by OpenSFHistory, a young boy and a police officer wave to each other on the corner of San Francisco’s Divisadero and Pine Streets. It’s an innocuous image, the boy smirking slightly at the officer as a few onlookers watch from nearby. 

Though critics today like to depict San Francisco as a city full of drugs, crime and loose morals, the same was said a century ago.

As city dwellers fretted over what they saw as the fall of San Francisco’s grace and the rise of its period of “vice,” policing became a major political talking point in the 1920s.

A black and white image of a youth and a San Francisco Department Policeman at the corner of 1900 Divisadero Street at Pine Street in San Francisco sometime in 1920. Courtesy OpenSFHistory/the Western Neighborhoods Project
Pedestrians and a Muni buss pass through the intersection of Divisadero and Pine on Friday, July 29, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco in the 1910s had earned a reputation for being a “wide-open town” from reports of rampant gambling, sex work and even “bawdy dancing” in the Barbary Coast red light district, located in present-day North Beach. Authors and newspapers published stories about the “gilded palaces of sin” that housed “drunkenness and debauchery,” while others worried about the contagion of vice from the Barbary Coast to quieter, emptier parts of the city—much like the neighborhood shown in this photograph. 

By the 1920s, California’s most wide-open city had run into the country’s most puritanical law: Prohibition. As a result, the city’s reputation for alcohol-fueled vice had become a violation of the law. 

The city’s response? More policing. 

Earlier decades of vice, prostitution, gambling and drinking in the Barbary Coast resulted in a cyclical process of prohibitionist activism, headed by reformers and state officials. On the government level, officials passed anti-vice laws and sought to curb prostitution and drinking by rounding up sex workers and essentially shutting down the Barbary Coast. 

On the ground, police officers targeted bootleggers—those smuggling or selling alcohol illegally—and sought to bust speakeasies across the city…at least, on paper. 

Neither of these efforts worked. At the time of this photograph, San Francisco was rumored to have the most bars per capita out of any other city in America, and its location along the coast made it easy to slip liquor through the Golden Gates. So when Prohibition hit the West in 1920, alcohol simply went underground and into speakeasies. The city remained “wetter” than most, with some scholars characterizing the laws as “only a rumor” for SF.  

Within the police force, it was a well-known fact the 18th Amendment was, well, nearly impossible to enforce. Not only was the law extremely unpopular to the public, but the police force struggled to address alcohol consumption and its related gang violence simultaneously.

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Many officers turned a blind eye to brazen violations of the law—either on the streets or in their own lives. Distributors like the “Walking Boot-Legger,” for example, would wander along the Embarcadero selling moonshine flasks from the pockets of his trench coat. 

But even the police force liked to have a little fun. Prohibition especially lost its bite when city newspapers reported “higher ups”’ participating in bootleggery and conspiracy. In 1922, Police Chief Daniel O’Brien said that complaints of police officers’ bootleggery and extortion came from “all districts of the city,” and big proprietors paid money to officials for “protection” from the law. 

Ultimately, Prohibition was so unpopular that by 1926, SF’s Board of Supervisors passed a resolution refusing to use the city’s police force to enforce Prohibition. The federal government hired “Prohibition Agents” to address violations of the law, and “vice” simply migrated to other parts of the city: in Pacific Heights (near this photograph) and in the Tenderloin and SoMa regions. 

But the San Francisco police force was never the same, as Chief O’Brien spent much of his career playing damage control for his officers’ extracurricular drinking activities. 

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Liz Lindqwister can be reached at [email protected]




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