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The Chief

Two weeks ago, Mike Shanahan died. He was my chief of police and assistant chief for two years in the early 70s. I moved on to be a federal agent and Mike stayed on to head the University Police Department for twenty-five years. Because I still had many friends in the department I stayed in touch with the gossip and cops love to gossip, particularly about the chief.

Mike came to the campus cops in May 1970 straight from the U.S. Army. Our old chief noticed him when he covered the University of Washington as a major from Military Intelligence. The first pick for assistant chief, a retired Seattle Police lieutenant, bailed on the job when he saw all the unrest we were facing. Mike stepped into law enforcement at a great time. He was not quite thirty with blond hair and a boyish smile not to mention a Stanford education. He was a positive addition to the talent pool even if we didn’t recognize it. His first day on the job was when Nixon ordered troops into Cambodia. Three days later, National Guardsmen in Ohio gunned down four students. Things really came apart with demonstrations, strikes, and attempts to close the University.

Back up a little bit. In 1968, when the first sit-in on campus shook up the University fathers there was a political division between local and state elected officials. The city and county pols said it was a state problem and the campus police will just have to deal with it. The campus police were called the Safety Division which embraced parking lots, occupational safety, fire safety, and public safety. Law enforcement and police were words to be avoided. The department consisted of about eighteen men, some retired military, and not a few grandfathers. Hardly the highly-trained professionals the University needed. So the old chief started hiring people, students like me who sold parking passes or shook doors, and names offered by the personnel office – men looking for jobs like truck driver and janitor. By the time Mike showed up as the old chief’s ramrod we had grown from eighteen to more than fifty or sixty. Half of us had no formal training. No mount of training would make some of them peace officers. Some of the original eighteen said no thanks and quit. Not a lot to work with.

This is important for two reasons. The first is that the level of professional practice in the department was not high. Second, the level of maturity to deal with Mike’s take-charge approach was not high either. He pissed a lot of people off including me, mostly because he was the old chief’s hatchet man. His radio call sign was Charlie Five. The oafs among us liked to hold up five fingers then turn it into a thumbs down.But Mike knew he had to lead from the front and he did.

Cut back to May 1970. The calls for a student strike resulted in some half-ass attempts by demonstrators to block the entrances to campus (as if this would somehow bring the troops home). It got serious enough that the University President Charles Odegaard ordered the old chief to clear the gates. This resulted in rock throwing and general rioting on and off campus similar to baloney the summer before. This sucked in hundreds of Seattle PD officers and King County deputies in riot gear to the U District.

Seattle PD responded with a practice they had employed in the Central Area since 1968. They fielded plain-clothes officers to wander around and just beat the crap out of anyone. The idea was to spread fear of vigilantes and random violence and send everyone home. This apparently had met with some success in African American neighborhoods, but it turned bad on campus. To make a long story short (read more here and here) campus cops confronted plain clothes officers. One of the SPD guys ended up on the ground with a shattered face and jaw.

The old chief put Mike on the task of an internal investigation. He called every one of us into his office individually where he assured each of us of eternal regret should we ever discuss the matter. He then extracted statements from all of us to document “The Incident on Hippie Hill”. Oh, in the midst of all that, the University moved the whole department, lock, stock, and locker room off campus to an old saw mill on Portage Bay. And we went on twelve-hour shifts, no days off. It didn’t take long for nerves to wear thin. I doubled my paycheck that month with the overtime. 

A year later, the old chief died of a heart attack caused by the accumulation of stress. His name is on the law enforcement memorial in Olympia. Mike took over as acting chief until the University fathers felt comfortable enough to confirm him as chief. He did things that pissed off more people, but made me like him more.

For example, each officer was surprised with a written test on the traffic code, no chance to study. Those failing were prohibited from writing tickets until they studied up and passed. I was the only one to pass the first time around. (Maybe there was one other, but he was fired soon after.) The other cops bellyached, but they studied up and passed the test.

There was the long-standing issue of guns. The old chief had some odd ideas and insisted that officers carry lightweight, snub-nosed revolvers so as not to offend. “We’re not out there to fight the people,” he often said. What with officers being assassinated and bombs going off, this policy annoyed us all. Almost as soon as Mike was confirmed as chief, he signed off on a purchase order for new, proper police revolvers, but he didn’t tell anyone.The first I knew was when the box arrived and I was handed a shiny, proper police weapon. There were other reforms.

The old chief’s response to discovering the entire graveyard shift, save one, playing Hearts in the coffee room  was to have them write essays. Mike continued to insist on more from the officers and he handed out letters of reprimand and days off where they were needed.

The day of the old chief’s memorial service there was a rock concert at the pavilion on Montlake Boulevard. The University had allowed a series of these events and was immediately sorry. Thousands of young people, not entirely sober, showed up to trash the Pavilion. Hundreds more showed up without tickets and to force their way into the place. Mike’s response for the next concert was a full-court press by every man jack of us, some seventy-two.

At the Pavilion we ran the ticketless long-hairs away from the front doors. They took up a position on the old railroad line that would someday become the Burke Gilman Trail. At that time it was still paved in ballast, rocks perfect for throwing. Add to that the elevation of the roadbed and even the most amateur rock thrower could lob missles onto the front porch of the “Pav”. That left us pinned down behind pillars as rocks skipped in breaking windows like sniper fire. We crouched there clutching our riot batons like rifles or spears waiting for someone to take charge.

At that point Mike did something I think we all dream of. He stepped back from one of the pillars which provided us cover and said, “We’re going to take that hill. Is everyone ready? Let’s go.”

We rushed out across Montlake Boulevard and into the traffic, legionnaires against the barbarians. One cop waved a motorist to a stop. Rocks rained down on the car shattering the windows. The officer then signalled the driver to proceed. Up the embankment we ran and, naturally, the rock throwers disappeared. So we fell back to the Pavilion. The rock throwers returned and we had to retake the hill, but that time we stayed. The night deteriorated into groups of roving youths setting trash cans on fire and trying to sneak into the concert. It was quite a night.

After I became a fed, I had infrequent contact with The Chief. Years later, after we had both retired, I met him at a reception. He commented how, way back when, we had held things together on campus. It could have gone very bad like in Ohio or Mississippi, but we kept the lid on. No history is good history I suppose.

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