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San Diego

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Prior to 1889, law enforcement in San Diego was handled by City marshals and constables. Between 1845 and 1850, the town was under military control. In 1850, the state senate drew up a charter providing for a five-man City Council assisted by a marshal, an attorney, an assessor and a treasurer. The voters chose Agostin Haraszthy as both sheriff and marshal.

The frontier lawman was patrolman, detective, criminologist, jailor, process server, clerk and executioner. His first requirement was raw courage. He depended upon the gun on his hip to back up his orders. His first interest was in keeping alive and bringing the culprit to justice, dead or alive.

In 1850, the council decided to build a town jail. Two bids were received, one from the Israel brothers for $3,000 and the other from Haraszthy for $5,000. Because Haraszthy's father was president of the council, Haraszthy got the contract -- bankrupting the City. Four hours after the first prisoner was incarcerated, he dug his way through the wall with a pocket knife.

The City eventually purchased a cage and put its first escape-proof jail in the Old Town Plaza. In 1871, the jail was moved to the location of the present county courthouse at Front and C streets in new San Diego.

The metropolitan San Diego Police Department was established May 16, 1889. On June 1 of that year, Joseph Coyne, the City Marshal, was appointed the first Chief of Police.

The first police uniform consisted of derby hats, coats with high collars and badges with seven-point stars. Chief Coyne was paid $125 a month, his officers $100 a month; they worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. In 1895 shifts were reduced to eight hours -- but salaries also dropped: $25 a month. Mounted patrolmen furnished their own horses, but did receive $100 a month for feed and care of their animals. The modern mounted patrol began in 1934 in Balboa Park, but was abolished in 1948. It was re-established in 1983 and remained active until 2010.

Among other milestones:

  • Harry Vandeberg was the first detective (1907);
  • W. E. Hill was the department's first motorcycle officer (1909);
  • the first traffic signal was installed around 1920 at Fifth Avenue and Broadway (it was manually controlled by an officer who stood in the center of the intersection);
  • the crime lab was established in 1939;
  • patrol cars got one-way radios in 1932,
  • two-way radios four years later; and
  • the first reserves appeared on the scene in 1942.

The first police headquarters was in City Hall at Fifth Avenue and G Street. Several moves later, the department relocated at Dead Man's Point, named because of its use as a burial place for sailors and marines during the charting and surveying of San Diego Bay. The department remained there -- at 801 West Market St. -- until 1987, when it moved into its current seven-story headquarters building at 1401 Broadway.

For those interested in looking at crime trends over the past several decades, we have provided the City of San Diego Historical Crime Statistics available for the years since 1950, which shows both crime actual numbers and rates.

For additional Department history, visit the San Diego Police Historical Association or try reading "To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, 1889-1989," by Pliny Castanien. This book was published by the San Diego Historical Society and is described at its website.


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