The relatively scant but growing literature on policing tends to focus on police departments as institutions, often counterposed to the populations they patrol. Bloody Bay broadens this perspective by examining the development of the San Francisco police in relationship with preexisting traditions of popular justice that survived in modified form even as formal police came into being. In doing so, it adds an important part of the story of the relationship between vigilante justice and police development, and places formal policing on a continuum, linked to and developing out of less formal traditions.
Raspa argues that, in San Francisco, modern professional policing grew out of a tradition of grassroots “policeways” that culminated in the repeated intervention of vigilantes, and that these vigilante traditions were in some ways folded into the operations of the police department (2). Unlike in the U.S. South or Southern California, he argues, this tradition served to help as much as to target San Francisco’s non-white populations of Latin American and Chinese immigrants. According to Raspa, this accounts for San Francisco’s history of relatively progressive policing.
Raspa highlights two cases in which popular organs of justice worked hand-in-hand with some state authorities against other state authorities to check, or at least delay, white racist attempts to murder and usurp the property of Chilean immigrants. Even though one case in 1849 still ended in the extralegal execution of many Chileans, Raspa points out that neither the formal forces of order nor the “policeways” of the population sided automatically with the racist mobs. Another case that same year even ended in victory for the Chileans. In this case, Raspa writes, “an ad hoc American territorial court, hearing an array of Spanish-speaking and female witnesses, arose in the unlikely early period of the 1840s to dismantle the racist violence of a legally appointed police force and appointed its own volunteer force to defend the rights of a historically marginalized and abused group of its residents” (49).
Raspa also points to the ways in which its roots in a tradition of popular justice helped the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) develop fruitful relationships with the city’s Chinese residents. In a particularly striking example, in 1877 the police decided to protect Chinatown from a racist mob. Raspa writes that former police chief Martin Burke, who had also served as a leader of vigilance committees in the 1850s, drew on his experience leading unofficial groups of armed civilians to formulate a plan to save Chinatown. “If a committee could be formed that placed the formal authorities as the governing command, perhaps a new type of police partnership could be formed: the SFPD could be relied upon as a center of command for a legally organized auxiliary army” (177). In Raspa’s story, this alliance worked, and set the stage for the SFPD to work closely with Chinatown elites to maintain order—if not exactly to enforce the law—into the twentieth century. In this, Raspa complicates our understanding of Fong Ching, a Chinatown entrepreneur who built an empire of both legal and illicit businesses, and worked closely with police—to the benefit, perhaps, of both.
Raspa’s story turns on San Francisco’s vigilance committees of 1851 and 1856. In both cases, these committees mobilized a broad swath of the population to confront perceived serious problems of crime and corruption that threatened the city’s residents. While both committees carried out extralegal killings of accused criminals, they also worked closely with some established authorities against other agencies perceived to be corrupt and in league with criminals. Raspa also points out that widespread participation in these committees was a form of democratic organization that helped link the grassroots policeways of vigilante justice to the formal policeways that were eventually adopted by SFPD. Compared to many other police departments, this process helped SFPD forge closer links with those it patrolled than occurred elsewhere. In addition, many participants in these vigilance committees, like Martin Burke, would go on to play important roles in shaping the police department in later years.
Raspa writes exuberantly, and this makes the book a pleasure to read. However, at times the flavor of the writing gets in the way of Raspa analyzing his examples as deeply as he might. For instance, he never engages with the social construction of crime itself, although many of his examples open themselves to such interrogation. The numerous vigilante organizations he cites acted in extralegal ways to define “crime” and “criminality”—for instance, in 1856, newspaper editor James King accused the city’s leaders of corruption and pointed in particular to City Supervisor James Casey’s previous terms in prison. That same day, Casey fatally shot King (144). In response, a vigilance committee formed to protect “democracy” and ultimately “tried” and hanged Casey. Here was a fight over what constituted crime: for Casey, the crime was an insult to his honor; for the vigilantes, the crime was Casey’s corruption and his murder of King; for modern readers, perhaps, the crime was vigilantism—the killings carried out by the vigilantes themselves. Raspa does not touch on the ways these disputes shaped what counted as “crime,” instead focusing on the membership and organization of this 1856 committee. In his last chapter, especially, concerning San Francisco’s development of a “progressive” police force after the San Francisco earthquake and fire that might serve as a model for the rest of the country, Raspa seems to accept at face value the scrapbooks of SFPD’s Jesse Brown Cook, who obviously wished to portray his administration in a positive light.
Also, neither Raspa’s argument nor his examples are as unique as he insists, and he would have benefited from a more thorough engagement with the literature on policing, race and ethnicity, and popular justice. In particular, John Phillip Reid’s Policing the Elephant: Crime, Punishment, and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1997) makes similar arguments about popular justice among the forty-niners on their way to California; Reid’s insights would have enriched Raspa’s interpretation. The tradition of police and “policeways” being organized to defend ethnic minorities also has a long history and is certainly not unique to San Francisco. In cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest, the Irish came to be vastly overrepresented on police forces in part because municipal governments recognized the need to engage with immigrant “policeways” during the overlapping periods of massive Irish immigration and police development. Moreover, in the 1840s and 1850, local police departments sometimes defended Irish neighborhoods from nativist mobs. During Reconstruction, freed people and their allies organized repeatedly to defend themselves from racist lynch mobs and terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan, often in cooperation with state and federal authorities. In doing so, they formed policeways of their own, which were counterposed violently to the policeways of the Redeemers.
Nonetheless, Raspa’s central argument brings a much-needed corrective to the state-centered story of U.S. policing. His concept of “policeways” provides a useful analytical tool for historians studying popular models of justice and policing—so useful that, even in my critique of his book, I found myself using it. Raspa pushes police historians to look beyond the formal police departments created by big cities and to examine more closely the relationships among the variety of state and non-state actors that only developed into the modern system of formal criminal justice quite late in this country’s history.