When I walked into San Mateo's sparkling, spacious new police headquarters, I spotted a large photograph of the city's police force dated March 1927. To my surprise, there was a woman in the front row. That was Irene Ferrel, who joined the department in June 1926. Ferrel, the first female member of the department is the pride and joy of Susan Manheimer, the city's first female police chief. But Manheimer insists that in her 28 years of policing, being a woman hasn't been such a big deal.
In fact, she was admitted to the San Francisco Police Academy after that city was in legal trouble for lack of diversification. It took two years after her application to be admitted. In the meantime, she worked for Barbara Kaufman (former San Francisco supervisor) at KCBS's consumer affairs program.
Why did Manheimer pick police work? She was born and raised in the north Bronx in a neighborhood of first generation Irish, Italian and Jewish families. Her father was a councilman and frequently had local police officers to the house. As a youngster, Manheimer loved those visits and decided early on, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 9, when most little girls are interested in dolls, that she wanted to be a cop. Her parents never dissuaded her. The family moved to Washington, D.C. when Manheimer was in high school. She attended the University of Maryland and majored in law enforcement and broadcasting. After her second year of college, she came to San Francisco and worked in a senior retirement hotel, the Granada. It was 1975. There she met Michael, fell in love, married and quit school. She eventually graduated from college many years later when her daughter graduated from high school. She and Michael lived in the Haight-Ashbury and started a family. But then a traumatic incident changed her life. When she was with her young daughter, Manheimer was robbed by a violent panhandler but escaped any serious injury. She decided to take a course in self-defense and did so well she was encouraged to apply for a position in the police department. Finally two years later, when she was 27, she was accepted.
"I was not the only woman,” she pointed out because of the diversification mandate. She started off as a patrol officer in the Mission and then became an undercover agent in the crime-ridden Tenderloin. She would masquerade as a taxi cab driver or as an old drunk. During that period, she was robbed 27 times, mostly at ATMs. Eventually, she was promoted to captain.
In 1989, out of safety concerns for her children because of her job, the family moved to Pacifica, where they have remained since. Michael works in hotel accounting for the Four Seasons. In addition to the daughter, who is an attorney, she and Michael have a son, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who recently served a stint in Afghanistan, and is now in D.C. working in military intelligence. He and his wife have one baby and a second one is due soon. Manheimer is as proud of her grandson as she is of San Mateo's police force.
Manheimer didn't seek the San Mateo job but was recruited by the city's headhunter after John Stangl left for Wisconsin. One thing she learned from her Tenderloin days was that police cannot do it alone. It has to be a team effort with support from the community, the neighborhood and elected officials. San Mateo has been exemplary in that respect, she said. The affection and admiration was reciprocated as Manheimer was honored by the city's United Homeowners Association at last Tuesday's council meeting. The biggest challenge she faced on arrival in 2000 was to retool the city's community policing operation. With increasingly tight budgets, Manheimer assigned an officer to each community with the task of finding out what "we could do together” to meet neighborhood concerns. One result was cleaning up gang activity on Amphlett Boulevard and the east side of Kehoe Avenue.
Some thought Manheimer would have been tagged as San Francisco's police chief a few years back when she was on the short list. Instead, her male colleagues chose her as the first female head of California's Police Chiefs Association. She's been called on to meet with the governor and U.S. attorney general . Still, she insists she's happy in San Mateo. Following the incident at George Hall Elementary School last year, she's leading efforts to train officers on how to respond to children in crisis. She's also increased the visibility of the local Police Activities League. My guess is that when there's an opening for county sheriff, Susan Manheimer will be on the top of everyone's list.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.