Third in a Series
This is the latest in my series of how a shooting of a police officer in Ocean Beach in the mid-1970s helped lead eventually to much-needed reforms within the San Diego Police Department. My first post focused on Feb. 22, 1974 itself, the day Pete Mahone shot Officer William Ritter in an attempt at ‘suicide by cop’. Both survived miraculously – Officer Williams with a flesh wound, and Pete Mahone, a politicized ex-con who wanted to go down and take someone with him, who, while also wounded, did time in prison for the shooting.
Yet, the over-reaction by the police and the armed camp that they set up that day led to outrage among the residents of Ocean Beach; resulting in a packed town hall meeting a week and half after the shooting. The town hall meeting then led to the formation of a citizens’ group to campaign for police reform – the Ocean Beach Human Rights Committee. In my second post, I described some of the history of the deterioration of police-community relations in OB as the neighborhood morphed from a seaside surf town into the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego.
Ocean Beach had become the front line in the Establishment’s cultural war against hippies, a clash manifested in the increasingly politicized mass confrontations between youth and police by the early seventies, and in the daily contact between young people and cops. This daily contact – in the form of traffic stops and “field interrogations” exacerbated tensions – as many felt rights were being systematically violated. On top of that was police spying and harassment of community activists, as the movement against the Vietnam War intensified and as community organizing took root in Ocean Beach. A survey of Northwest OB residents found large percentages with negative views of the police, as we reported.
OCEAN BEACH, CA. It may be true, as someone has suggested, that young people of Ocean Beach today have no idea of the on-going, daily tension between the police and the youth of OB a generation ago. Things are taken for granted.
Take the concept of police review, of the idea that civilians with some authority review the activities of police officers through an independent process. Heh? What’s the big deal? you ask. Of course, there should be some sort of civilian monitoring of and control on how police act and behave toward citizens.
Yet, back in middle of the 1970s – a generation ago - police review was a strange, foreign idea and concept – at least in how the establishment and the police department reacted whenever it was brought up. Talk of a civilian review board was anathema to those in power and to those who did their dirty work. It was as if people were calling for devil worship.
So when the Ocean Beach Town Council formed a Police Activities Committee in the Fall of 1973, the pillars of San Diego power trembled with fear and anger. The once-conservative town council had set up the committee (PAC) to take complaints from neighborhood residents about individual police officers, as it had been besieged with demands to do something about the police and how they treated the young people of the community.
On top of all this, the Town Council was feeling pressure from the community activist networks that had taken root in Ocean Beach by the early seventies. A number of activists and their supporters were lobbying the Town Council to take the issue of police spying and harassment seriously.
Nixon’s 1972 Re-Election Required Sacrifices in San Diego
Once the Republican Party had announced that the 1972 national GOP convention was coming to San Diego, harassment, infiltration and manipulation of peace and activist groups became the soup d’jour for law enforcement in the area. This well-documented campaign by law enforcement – both local and national – to “neutralize” militant opposition in San Diego to the Vietnam War around the time of Nixon’s re-election was the historical context of the growing demands for police review. The San Diego Police Department set up what was called the Investigative Support Unit, or what everybody else called the “Red Squad.” It was the unit that did the spying, infiltration and manipulation of activist and anti-war groups.
In Ocean Beach, things were no different, as many within the leadership of the anti-war movement lived in the community. Add them to the people involved in the mix of popular alternatives developing in OB, such as People’s Food Store, the Free School, the OB Rag and groups such as Ecology Action and the Community Planning Group, you had quite a deep and wide overlapping series of activist networks.
Even though the GOP switched their convention to Miami, due to Republican involvement in a series of local scandals, the harassment and spying by police continued unabated. Upon re-election, Nixon intensified the war, which caused the anti-war movement – both here locally and across the country – to ratchet up its tactics.
As law enforcement – both local police and FBI – continued their efforts to disrupt the San Diego peace movement, their tactics involved a wide-range of antics: from your standard fare of phone taps, paid informants, arrests of activists on trumped-up charges, to intimidating organizers’ landlords and employers – or in the case of the OB Rag – their printer, and to intentional traffic stops of organizers, …- all the way to more harsh methods – such as the theft by police of private records (personal photos, phone books, notebooks) of anti-war activists – complete with an official denial, – to raids on the homes of activists based on the flimsiest of pretenses, … to the extreme – developing and funding cells of right-wing terrorists who firebomb activists’ cars and shoot up their houses, and more, to conspiracies to kidnap, torture and possibly murder prominent activists. This was the weather in San Diego in the early 1970s.
All these things happened in Ocean Beach. Activists who were involved in the anti-war movement and who lived in the community experienced these things. A car was firebombed and a house on the 5100 block of Muir Street was shot up – and a woman seriously wounded – by right-wing terrorists under the control of the FBI.
A house on the last block of Cape May Avenue was raided, and every phone book, notepad or personal photo of the half-dozen activists who lived there was taken by a police officer wearing a clown’s mask. The officer – obviously trying to protect his identify – was photographed leaving the back door by an OB Rag photographer. Later, the police denied all of this.
No one was kidnapped or murdered, but there was a plot later disclosed that involved law enforcement working with independent agents to kidnap prominent anti-war activist and college professor Peter Bohmer and others – several who were OB residents, take them to Mexico, and have them murdered under false pretenses by Federales.
Police Refuse to Meet With OB Town Council’s ‘Police Review’ Committee
So, when the OB Town Council set up its Police Activities Committee, it seemed out of character for the normally more-staid organization. Why, just two years earlier, the Town Council under controversial President Bob Miller – himself a member of the vigilante Posse Comitatus – publicly called on Mayor Pete Wilson to end the influx of hippie and student demonstrators into Ocean Beach arriving for the GOP Convention. Residents’ opposition to Miller’s outrageous comments led to a dramatic split on the Council itself, and to Miller’s eventual resignation months later.
By Fall of 1973 with OBTC president Ted Kistner, a quiet-spoken and be-speckled older resident, the Council had shaken off some of its wing-nut reputation, and took a much more conciliatory approach to the young in general and to the community activists and their supporters. Liberals and centrists, with a few enlightened businesspeople and professionals, came to dominate the Council. By then a couple of local organizers had joined its ranks: Tom Bailey, who had been a leader of Ecology Action during the tense and confrontational jetty fight, and Tom Kozden – a Free School teacher and anti-war activist.
From within the Council then, there was a push for some kind of police complaint procedure. In the end, by a very narrow vote, the Town Council created the Police Activities Committee. As the OB Rag reported:
The committee’s original purpose was to receive complaints, offer recommendations, praise or inspect police practices, and to investigate specific incidents or actions of certain officers.
(This and following quotes are from OB Rag, Late March 1974, pg.9)
Kozden was selected as its chair. After volunteers from the community were solicited, the committee (“the PAC”) became swamped with a ‘who’s-who” of community politics:
Initially its members were: Dick Ridenour, former OBTC president [Ed: and Bob Miller ally] , businessman and reserve police officer …; Lois Rhodes, treasurer of the council [Ed.: spouse of Dusty Rhodes of Dusty Rhodes Park]; Tom Kozden; Bill Reedhead, an OB storefront lawyer; Tova Kastruba, a recent organizer of folkdances for the OBTC; Jim Huffman, an administrator at Pt.Loma College; Betty Bish, a local realtor; Frank Gormlie, an OB activist [ED: this writer]; John Collom, a public schools teacher; Dolores Frank, co-chairperson of the Community Planning Group; and Avis Stone, a longtime OB resident.
The PAC was hot. More community people would turn out for the Committee’s meetings than for the full Town Council. It was dealing with an issue that OBceans had been clamoring about for many moons. Folks on the Board of the Council were digging it as it was bringing attention to their group as they were trying to resolve a community problem. As the Rag described it:
In a community where a process of polarization around the police is taking place, the town council committee is presently the mechanism for citizens to have input into how the police operate outside of indidvual complaints. While (Police Community-Relations Officer Don) Johnson speaks the department line, that there are no special police-community problems, 200 residents, many of them angry, have met (March 4, 1974) to talk about the police in a recent town meeting. [See "Police Review" here for remainder of this 1974 analysis - scroll down to the very end of the page.]
With the creation of this committee, it gave a public forum to several prominent grassroots critics of the police, sanctioned by the credibility of the Town Council. This did not sit well with the Police Department.
Community Relations Officer Johnson told Council President Kistner that he had been ordered by his superiors not to sit on the committee and not to meet with it or attend its meetings. The police would simply not sit down with a committee because of “certain elements” on it.
The refusal by the police to talk with the PAC fueled its Council opponents and their efforts to close it down. “From its inception” wrote the Rag in ’74, “the committee has been immersed in controversy and difficulty.” The conservative members on the Council lobbied Kistner and others to disband it. Still, a majority of the Board and many in the neighborhood “see the committee as one of the most relevant steps the town council has ever taken.”
Yet Kistner, Council prez, stated: “If we can’t get police to come to meetings, I really don’t see if the committee can accomplish anything.” He told local press: “Some members of the board feel the committee should be disbanded. Possibly it will.”
The Reign of Chief Ray Hoobler
Amazing. The Police Community-Relations Officer was ordered not to sit down with the community. It seems incredible now, but that was the state of things between Ocean Beach and the San Diego Police at the time of the shooting on February 22, 1974 – 35 years ago – the day when all hell broke out.
What police department would not want to sit down with representatives of a local town council to discuss problems? What kind of Chief would order his Community Relations Officer to carry out such a policy?
It would have to be none other than San Diego Police Chief Ray Hoobler.
Chief Ray Hoobler was “a cop’s cop”, a traditionalist into centralized authority, who had pulled himself up through the ranks in the rough and tumble days of the Department. Now as top dog, Hoobler continued the traditions – the brown uniforms, “the paramilitary attitude.”
For the cultural war against the hippies, San Diego’s establishment needed a Police Chief who wouldn’t flinch. It seemed, at least at first, that Chief Hoobler was perfect. He had been leading his Department in holding back the hordes, be they minorities, striking laborers or drunk sailors – and now they were needed to hold the cultural line against the new bohemians – who threatened the very foundation of society with their ‘peace and love’ mantra.
So when the hippies came along to San Diego in the late sixties, Hoobler’s men had already been trained in harassment and intimidation techniques, having perfected them in controlling African-American and Mexican-American neighborhoods, beating down gays during “Hoobler’s Reign of Terror”.
The Chief knew Ocean Beach, the new hippie haven, where the long-hairs assembled. He had a number run-in’s with folks down at the beach. Yessir. In fact, he had been photographed by OB’s first underground newspaper, the Liberator, commanding his officers during a disturbance on the 5000 block of Long Branch Avenue.
The black and white photo – which I have seen – has Chief Hoobler standing in the middle of the street with his bull-horn. The Chief had been called down to the beach because of yet another disturbance – and he must have flown to OB straight from the golf course, because there he stood still in his golf shirt. The photo has him barking out orders to his troops as they go door-to-door hunting down mischievous scofflaws. In the background in the photo, you can see officers on the second story porch of an old wooden building on Long Branch banging on doors. No time for the Fourth Amendment here. These beach anarchists have gotta learn their lesson.
This is how Chief Hoobler knew Ocean Beach. This is the chief of police that people in OB and across town faced in their calls for police reform and for civilian review of police.
Ocean Beach was not the only neighborhood that Hoobler had an affinity with. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper in his book, “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing”, wrote about his days within the Department in San Diego, and about Chief Hoobler.
In the early seventies, Police Chief Ray Hoobler was under intense attack from many San Diegans – especially people of color, whom he’d offended repeatedly with his less than sensitive public remarks about “stoop laborers” and “wetbacks” (along with more discreet references to “niggers”). His popularity had plummeted within City Hall in direct proportion to the antagonisms he fostered between the PD and the politicians’ constituencies.
Stamper goes on to describe how, with Hoobler’s job at risk, the Chief was pressured to allow a more “community orientated policing ” for the Department. And this was Stamper’s specialty.
But it didn’t work out. Hoobler was eventually pressured to retire in 1975 (and Stamper’s community policing project went dormant for another decade and half until he became Assistant Chief). Bill Kolendar, selected to replace Hoobler, was much more diplomatic, more media conscious – more modern – and understood how to coddle the public and the politicians. The San Diego Police Department inched forward to becoming a cosmopolitan police force, as San Diego’s demographics changed.
Tony Perry in the LA Times on August 14, 2000, described how San Diego had to grapple with a changing, growing, sprawling metropolis in the mid-seventies:
San Diego, suffering at the time from allegations of racism, brutality and corruption, decided to drop much of its paramilitary attitude, to involve the public in setting priorities, and to put a premium on getting along with politicians and the press.
But before all this happened, before Hoobler retired, Ocean Beach activists had to confront him in a meeting with a list of grievances and recommendations. As they stepped into their downtown meeting with the Chief and with a couple of Councilmembers on May 21st, 1974, the activists carried all this history with them. It was time to be brave and face power. They were excited, scared and angry. To actually sit down with Hoobler, their nemesis. Their adrenaline was pumping. … How do I know? I was there.
NEXT: The Ocean Beach Human Rights Committee Is Formed