Oct. 14 2014 06:26 PM

Its operators would love to end up in Balboa Park

PhyllisStalnaker

She was a weedhead and a tramp. In 1944, that was enough to get Phyllis Stalnaker arrested. Her booking photo shows a pretty young woman sporting a jaunty striped top with a herringbone blazer and fashionably dark lipstick. She gives the camera a wary glance.

The photo hangs inside The Headquarters at Seaport District, possibly the only shopping center with jail cells and a lineup wall, a nod to its origins as the former home of the San Diego Police Department (SDPD).

"That was our whole reason for starting the San Diego Police Historical Association," says President Richard Carlson. The old police headquarters "was our largest artifact."

In the 1990s, the group learned that the Port of San Diego wanted to demolish the treasured 1939 building. The Historical Association filed a lawsuit, which it eventually lost, but the preservation effort gained support from legislators and the headquarters was saved. Today, it's a lively addition to the waterfront, one of two California police buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

And the Historical Association lives on, collecting, preserving and sharing more than 160 years of SDPD memorabilia through its museum and extensive website.

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, the Historical Association will team up with the San Diego Pontiac Club for Cops and Rodders Fall Pow Wow, a fundraiser at Embarcadero Marina Park North. Expect to see roughly 100 gleaming Pontiacs and vintage cop cars, plus food and music.

Donations support the San Diego Police Museum at 4710 College Ave., a little-known attraction on a busy street, just north of El Cajon Boulevard in the College Area. It's not an ideal site. People aren't likely to casually drop by, and the space isn't large enough to house the entire collection.

The museum still manages to bring in 1,000 visitors a year, mostly Boy Scout troops, Little Leaguers and senior citizens. There's a room for community meetings, free for anyone to use, plus a research library and a gift shop with crime-related books, SDPD souvenirs, hats, toys and clothing.

It's a quirky place, hand-built and run by retired police officers who volunteer their time as goodwill ambassadors to law enforcement. No flashy multimedia or touchscreens here; every day is Throwback Thursday at the Police Museum.

The impractical SDPD policewoman uniform of the 1970s
Photo by Susan Myrland

But for those who love the feeling of time travel that history provides, it's an unusual view of San Diego through the eyes of the men and women who protect and serve. There are relics from when East San Diego was its own city—a venture that lasted 11 years, from 1912 to 1923—with a separate government, three-person police force and the motto "The Golden Rule City." In a show of optimism and naiveté, East San Diego banned liquor sales, dance halls and firearm-carrying, only to fall victim to a water shortage and real-estate collapse.

There are anxious, scribbled notes from the 1987 SWAT standoff with Clairemont man Sandy Summers, a negotiation that took almost eight hours. The notes say that Summers was "Very Pissed Off" and wanted spring water ("must be Arrowhead"), cigarettes and his girlfriend.

Uniforms show SDPD adapting to social change and the rise of women and minorities joining the force. One of the first policewomen, 1917's Lucille Jeardue, patrolled La Jolla in no-nonsense boots, a conservative cardigan and a six-pointed star clipped to her belt. In the early 1970s, the department required female officers to wear miniskirts, severely hampering their ability to do the job. The outfit later changed to a maternity-style tunic and pants, but no gun belt. It wasn't until the end of the decade that female officers wore the same uniforms as their male peers.

Badges and photos are a big draw. When mug shots were lost, the museum bought some back via eBay. Visitors can pore over why Thelma Jay was arrested for being a "Thrill Blaster" or what drove Frank Sullenger, a mild-looking man, to peddle narcotics.

What the Police Museum lacks is the ability to display its fleet of vintage vehicles. Carlson says it's the largest on the West Coast—18 fully-functioning patrol cars, trucks, ambulances, motorcycles and a lowrider.

A favorite is the 1932 paddy wagon, rebuilt with a V8 engine and air-conditioning. At least once a month, the officers take it to the Gaslamp Quarter, where tourists pay to pose with it. The museum loans or rents other vehicles to retirement celebrations, birthday parties and movie shoots.

Carlson wants to expand to Balboa Park, and has his heart set on a building on south Marston Point, once known as the Fire Alarm and Police Radio Station Building. It has a connection to police history, having served as a communications center back in the days of callboxes and foot patrols.

He estimates that it's about 6,000 square feet, with a secure lot for vehicles and plenty of room for a continually growing assortment of uniforms and historic documents and some 22,000 pictures.

Just one problem: The administration and operations staff of the city's Park and Recreation Department work there. Spokesperson Bill Harris says the city's not interested in changing its use, adding that it would consider proposals, but the building is "nowhere near ADA-compliant."

Carlson won't give up hope. He knows he needs a champion, someone who sees value in preserving this segment of the city's history.

"We are comfortable where we are now, but we would love to be in an area more accessible to the public," he says in an email. "Should the opportunity arise, we would be ready to negotiate."

Besides a larger building, the museum must find a younger generation to run it. Carlson has been doing this for almost 20 years.

"Somebody's gotta take it over," he says. "There are people that are interested... But I think a permanent home would be a good solution, as well."

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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