Brief Sacramento Police Department History
In 1839, Captain John Sutter settled in a remote area, later building Sutter’s Fort, amongst a relatively small and quiet population. This was the beginning of the establishment of Sacramento. All was calm, until 1848 when the town was forever changed by James Marshall’s discovery of gold. The lawless Wild West town faced thievery, gunfights, and murders until 1849 when Marshal N.C. Cunningham was appointed, along with two deputies, to provide law and order. Our first small downtown law enforcement office and jail was relocated in the first City Hall, known as the Water Works building, in 1854.
When the City split from the County over rebuilding in 1863, J.T. Clark was chosen as the first police chief to run the Police Department. Policing in this rough-and-tumble political town meant dealing with nightly squatters and petty thieves, but in 1879, it involved the investigation of one of the most ambitious murder plots ever recorded. Three men, one a Public Administrator, conspired to kill 55 wealthy citizens for their money.
Formative steps were taken to distinguish officers from citizens in 1881, when the City ordered the first uniform and 7-point star be worn. By 1895, the first police wagon and ambulance, the “Black Maria,” enabled convicted felons to be taken “up the hill” to the new Folsom State Prison. As the boundaries of the City expanded, our patrol efforts were aided by the addition of “Chug Chug,” the electric police wagon in 1907, along with bikes and motorcycles in 1910.
The Department formed specialized units, like traffic and detectives, and began developing its first Manual of Orders in 1915. At our Headquarters building, Captain Max Fisher was busy paving the way for the use of fingerprints to aid cases in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1940, two-way radios were installed in squad cars, replacing the need for officers to call in for their assignments on Gamewell callboxes located throughout the city. In 1949, we employed the first female officers and in 1953, we trained our first full-time police academy at McKinley Park.
The 1960s brought the winds of change as gangs and drugs exploded, and tempers flared resulting in the violent Oak Park Riots. Then tragedy hit when a plane crashed into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in 1974, killing 23 people despite our officers’ best efforts. Civilians expanded our force and we opened the Rooney (1989) and Kinney (1994) substations to get us closer to the community and the people. Just before the turn of the century in 1999, the Sacramento Police Department celebrated its 150th year anniversary, and was more diverse and educated than ever.
Although we have developed more effective ways of policing and technological advances have aided our efforts, our Department still faces the same challenges today as we did the in Wild West, yet our goal remains the same. We, the men and women of the Sacramento Police Department, are committed to providing the highest level of police services to the citizens of Sacramento with honor, dignity, and professionalism.
This excerpt from a contribution by SPD history writer - SPD Officer E. Paul Brown
City Beat Television Program
Episodes of City Beat, an educational television program created in 2002-2005 featuring the Sacramento Police Department, can be found on our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLR0Wtq8JGPQbUBg_yh_WvczSz2G5KQvqp.