Palo Alto History. Org

Jim Zurcher: Chief "Super Pig"

Things got personal in the demonstration battles of the 1960s and early ‘70s, when student protesters were pitted against the nation’s young cops.    The students, largely from white-collar suburban homes, were inspired by a cultural and civil rights movement that promised to change the country.  On the other side, newly hired police officers saw themselves as the thin blue line protecting their communities from the increasing chaos and disorder.  There was little common ground between the two groups.  Students characterized the police as uneducated pigs with a penchant for giving beatings, while most cops saw the students as privileged, spoiled drop-outs just looking to cause trouble.   Tensions ran high in every encounter.

Jim Zurcher, who took over as police chief in 1971, tried to diffuse those tensions in Palo Alto.  A folk guitar player, marathon runner and possibly the best pistol-shooting police chief in the country, it would be Zurcher’s attempt to bridge the gap between police and protesters that would bring him both hearty praise and heavy criticism. 

A firm believer in both the letter of the law and First Amendment rights, 37-year-old Zurcher brought a new tolerance and broad-mindedness to a dogmatic old-guard police force.  By the time he retired 16 years later, the Palo Alto Police Department was a fundamentally different organization --- more open, diverse, and responsive to the community.  But it wouldn’t come easy.  Many of his policies would strike at the heart of what older officers saw as the essence of police work.  And in his first months on the job, the relationship between the Palo Alto police and Stanford student protesters would reach a new low.

On April 9, 1971 Stanford students and other protesters staged a violent sit-in, barricading themselves inside the Stanford Medical Center to protest the firing of black custodian Sam Bridges.  After a 30-hour occupation, the PAPD surrounded the demonstrators and attempted to batter down the door.   But the officers were blindsided by protesters wielding chair legs, iron clubs, and a relentless fire hose.  Zurcher later called it “the most vicious and unprovoked attack on police I have
ever witnessed.” 

In the fracas, thirteen cops were injured, two of them seriously.  The incident augmented the already heightened tension between protesters and police in Palo Alto.  Yet it seemed to give Zurcher new resolve to find mutual understanding.  Still settling into his office, the new chief sought to change both attitudes within the department and the image the PAPD projected to the outside community. 

Inside the department, Zurcher pursued the type of systemic changes that were bound to cause internal division.  In his first months on the job, Zurcher replaced the old paramilitary command organization with a more progressive team-management approach.  He sent cops for training in conflict management, saying that the police were there to “mediate disputes, not merely to ticket and arrest” --- an opinion that did not please some of his older lieutenants and sergeants. He also favored crime prevention methods and theories of community policing which were seen as rather avant-garde in those days.  Zurcher later said he put hard-nose officers with a reputation for beating and harassing demonstrators on the midnight “graveyard shift,” while shifting many discontented officers to other jobs.  Some veterans simply retired rather than accept the department’s new doctrine.

Zurcher’s proudest accomplishment was bringing women into the Palo Alto police force.  He gets credit for hiring Palo Alto’s first female cop (1971), first female lieutenant (1982) and first female captain (1985) --- changes for which he received little support from his own officers at the time.  He also furthered gains by Palo Alto’s black, Hispanic and Asian officers.

Meanwhile, Zurcher tried to reach out to the protesters, saying that he saw the police “as advocates of the people, instead of adversaries.”  In an attempt to humanize his own force, he took to drawing himself in a non-human form.  At a 1972 demonstration against Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, demonstrators received leaflets showing the chief as the “Superpig,” a cartoon swine wearing the chief’s badge and flashing the peace sign.  Using the radicals’ most incendiary name-calling epithet in a little old-fashioned reverse psychology, Zurcher attempted to turn the tables on the police-protester relationship.  As he said later, “The protesters always leafleted everyone else, so I thought, why not leaflet them?”

The pamphlet contained some “suggestions for peaceful demonstration from Palo Alto’s Superpig.”  It stated that “If the President and the leaders of the People’s Republic of China can normalize relations between two opposing philosophies, I’m sure we can cooperate to carry on a peaceful demonstration.  We are here to insure the safety of all those present.  That includes those wishing to demonstrate peacefully.  We ask that you let our officers guide your march and assist you in crossing any streets.”

Naturally, there was a backlash from the department’s old guard.  One of his officers called it “highly unprofessional for a chief to label himself ‘super pig.’  It makes us piglets….We fail to see any humor or levity in it.”  Zurcher later apologized, opting instead for the image of a smiling cartoon chief with a hovering halo.  But his earlier cartoon visage was forever immortalized when the Zurcher “Superpig” became the subject of a song on a Cleveland radio station. 

And Zurcher’s original thinking wasn’t just limited to cartoon illustrations.  He also brought innovative ideas to potentially dangerous situations.  When radical left-wing Venceremos members were accused of aiding in a murder, they holed themselves up inside a house on Channing Avenue.  The San Bernardino Sheriff’s department, with plans to break down the door, was gearing up for a potentially deadly shoot-out.  But Zurcher had the house surrounded with cops and successfully talked the suspects out without a shot fired.  Later, when a torch-lit peace march down University Avenue presented a fire risk, Zurcher had the PAPD purchase 500 candles and pass them out in exchange for torches.

Not to say that he wasn’t tough.  Zurcher established effective Embarcadero Road speed traps, closed down prostitution houses disguised as massage parlors and cracked down on local burglars in South Palo Alto.

He also stood by his officers’ right in 1971 to raid the Stanford Daily’s press offices looking for photographic evidence against the Medical Center attackers --- although the decision to enter the newspaper headquarters was made without his authorization.  The paper sued the department and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the PAPD won. 

Since Zurcher was the head of the police force, the case became known as Zurcher vs. Stanford Daily, ironically forever branding the chief’s name on the conservative side of a case that one can find today in every law school textbook.  After being portrayed in national editorial cartoons as a Gestapo-like gun wielding brute, Zurcher took to wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “I am not an ogre.” 

By the time Zurcher retired in 1987 after 16 years as Palo Alto’s top cop, much had changed in both the city and the country.  Long gone were the days of furniture-throwing radicals and Palo Alto policemen in riot gear.  A calmer tide of history had washed away much of the bad blood between the PAPD and the community it served.  Still, looking back on the progressive policies that have become standard Palo Alto police practice, there no doubt that the innovations of the “Chief Superpig” played a major role. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

I should first say I was a speaker at Jim Zurcher’s retirement dinner.  I was President of the Palo Alto Peace Officers Associations and I presented him with a memento.  It read, “We grieved you when you came. We grieved you while you were here.  Now we are grieving that you are leaving.”  Jim oversaw the growth of the PADP into one of the finest departments in the nation.  In the 15 years he was Chief, 35 officers left to become Chiefs of Police or Assistant Chiefs with other departments.  I know that Jim was very proud of these officers. A lot of things happened while Jim was at Palo Alto and I was glad that I was there for the ride.

The political climate was taking its toll on Bill Hydie, who eventually retired.  The PD was very supportive of Assistant Chief Clarence Hydie becoming Chief.  Instead, Jim Zurcher from Sierra Madre was named Chief.  This did not sit well with the officers.  An example of the small struggles we had was mustaches.  
Chief Zurcher did not like mustaches, so everyone grew them.  Then he Chief grew one and all the officers shaved theirs off.  While officers still had differences with the Chief, they respected the way he was professionalizing the PD.  

Jim Zurcher did bring innovation to the PD.  Palo Alto PD long had its own Police Academy.  Jim Zurcher expanded it to include a Field Training Program for after graduation.  Officers received much more on-going training than they ever had before.  Palo Alto and San Jose jointly developed the FTO program that
is modeled now by most of the PD in the nation.

In the 70’s there was a lot of police officers being killed.  We received a lot of training in tactic to keep us alive.  Jim also started the Advanced Officer Training program.  Veteran officers were supposed receive regular on-going training.  We got one week of training each year.  

I was promoted to Sergeant by Jim Zurcher.  As a Sergeant, I participated in Jim’s Organizational Development meeting.  We held them about every 4 months.  When we talked issues, Jim encouraged different points of view.  We all knew that he would make the final decision, but we also knew that he would
listen to us.  He was very participatory in his approach."  

"I was a member of the department from 1966 through 1981.  The police academy at PAPD in the 60's was terrible.  You would sit in class and being given hand outs.  Then you would put them into a binder, and before long you graduated, and were put onto a foot beat, with no radio.

After Zurcher got there, changes were noticed from the start. As Mike said, there was a lot of anger when Asst. Chief Anderson did not get the job.  What would a Chief of a tiny dept in So Calif know about Palo Alto?

Training did get better almost immediately. One of the bigger negatives was the hiring of women, as that canceled out the 5'8" height requirement, for short men and women.  Officers felt they would need two back up officers instead of one.  In some cases that was true; however, everyone got used to it.Zurcher and the police union started working WITH each other instead of against each other. We started getting better salaries, better equipment and cars.

The promotions went almost automatically to anyone who came out of college with a BA/BS degree.  It did not have to be in police work. New people were hired over 10-15 yr experienced veterans.  So someone with less than a year on the street, could be supervising senior officers.

That was depressing for veterans who had families and couldn't go back to college.  For a short time Sgt's did not have to have the BA/BS degree.

A lot of the minorities did get promoted, as Larry says, over veterans.  But again they were the college educated ones.  Retired Chief Hydie, did not like officers to go to college. Asst Chief Anderson, for awhile had the only BA/BS degree...

By the time I left in 1981, the riots had long stopped, and the dept was progressing well.  I went to Salem PD, in Oregon, and was amazed at how backwards they were, and they were double the size of Palo Alto. So the grass was not always greener many would find out. Palo Alto was easily the better dept."

"I was working the police desk mid morning on a weekday in around 1973 or so. The woman at the counter was NOT happy as her car had been towed for some reason.  Basically she was ranting "you towed my car. You caused my grief. You are about to cost me a bunch of money. You have better things to do, you this, you that.  Can't I understand her comfort level has been severely maligned? " Blah Blah Blah " Of course the phones were ringing and there were several other people behind her in line.  Chief Zurcher walked through the front desk area from the command bank of offices and overheard her for awhile.  Finally, he excused his way into her one-sided conversation and told her she was out of line for blaming me and that she was being very rude for something I had no part of and if she wanted her car back she would have to be nicer about it."

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Zurcher playing his beloved acoustic.  (PAHA) 

The Super-Pig leaflet.

Zurcher in his office. (PAHA)

Zurcher later went with this less controversial halo cartoon.