SAN FRANCISCO LETTER [dated Feb. 15, 1866]
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Chief Burke's Star Chamber Board of Police Commissioners is the funniest institution extant, and the way he conducts it is the funniest theatrical exhibition in San Francisco. Now to see the Chief fly around and snatch up accuser and accused before the commission when any policeman is charged with misconduct in the public prints, you would imagine that fearful Commission was really going to raise the very devil. But it is all humbug, display, fuss and feathers. The Chief brings his policeman out as sinless as an angel, unless the testimony be heavy enough and strong enough, almost, to hang an ordinary culprit, in which case a penalty of four or five days' suspension is awarded.
Wouldn't you call that Legislature steeped in stupidity which appointed a father to try his own son for crimes against the State? Of course. And knowing that the father must share the disgrace if the son is found guilty, would you ever expect a conviction? Certainly not. And would you expect the father's blind partiality for his own offspring to weigh heavily against evidence given against that son. Assuredly you would. Well, this Police Commission is a milder form of that same principle. Chief Burke makes all these policemen, by appointment -- breeds them -- and feels something of a parent's solicitude for them; and yet, if any charge is brought against them, he is the judge before whom they are tried! Isn't it perfectly absurd? I think so. It takes all three of those commissioners to convict -- the verdict must be unanimous -- therefore, since every conviction of one of the Chief 's offspring must in the nature of things be a sort of reflection upon himself, you cannot be surprised to know that police officers are very seldom convicted before the Police commissioners. Though the man's sins were blacker than night, the chief can always prevent conviction by simply with holding his consent. And this extraordinary power works both ways, too. See how simple and easy a matter it was for the chief to say to a political obstruction in his path: "You are dismissed, McMillan; I know of nothing to your discredit as an officer, but you are an aspirant to my position and I won't keep a stick to break my own back with." He simply said "Go," and he had to shove! If he had been one of the Chief's pets, he might have committed a thousand rascalities, but the powerful Commission would have shielded and saved him every time. Nay, more -- it would have made a tremendous hubbub, and a showy and noisy pretense of trying him -- and then brought him out blameless and shown him to be an abused and persecuted innocent and entitled to the public commiseration.
Why, the other day, in one of the commission trials, where a newspaper editor was summoned as a prosecutor, they detailed a substitute for the real delinquent, and tried him! There may be more joke than anything else about that statement, but I heard it told, anyhow. And then it is plausible -- it is just characteristic of Star Chamber tactics.
You ought to see how it makes the Chief wince for any one to say a word against a policeman; they are his offspring, and he feels all a father's sensitiveness to remarks affecting their good name. It is natural that he should, and it is wrong to do violence to this purely human trait by making him swear that he will impartially try them for their crimes, when the thing is perfectly impossible. He cannot be impartial -- is it human nature to judge with strict impartiality his own friends, his own dependent, his own offspring?
But what I mean to speak of, if I ever get through with these preliminary remarks, is the fact that the Flag yesterday said some thing severe about the police, and right away the reporter was summoned to stand before that terrible tribunal -- the Police Commissioners -- and prove his charges. Poor innocent! Why, he never can prove anything. They will come "Iowa justice" on him; he will swear he saw the prisoner do so and so, and the Chief will say, "Captain Baker send up thirty-five policemen to swear that they didn't see this thing done." They always manage to have the bulk of testimony on their side, anyhow. If Pontius Pilate was on the police he could crucify the Savior again with perfect impunity -- but he would have to let Barabbas and that other policeman alone, who were crucified along with him, formerly.
There is a bill in the hands of a San Francisco legislator which proposes to put the police appointing power in the hands of the Mayor, the District Attorney, and the city and county attorney; and the trial of policemen and power to punish or dismiss them, in the hands of the county and police court prosecuting attorney. This would leave Chief Burke nothing to do but attend to his own legitimate business of keeping the police department up to their work all the time, and is just the kind of bill that ought to pass. It would reduce the Chief from autocrat of San Francisco, with absolute power, to the simple rank of Chief of Police with no power to meddle in outside affairs or do anything but mind his own particular business. He told me, not more than a week ago, that such an arrangement would exactly suit him. Now we shall see if it suits him. Don't you dare to send any log-rolling, wire-pulling squads of policemen to Sacramento, Mr. Burke.
[reprinted in Mark Twain's San Francisco, edited by Bernard Taper, (McGraw Hill, 1963), pp. 218-20.]
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