San Bernardino County has a fascinating heritage and there are a variety of historical societies and museums throughout the region. A resource – little known – but a must-see is the Historical Society of the Police of San Bernardino.
Founded in 2004, this wonderful nonprofit group documents the rich history of the men and women who have served this city since the department’s inception over 100 years ago. In addition to displaying items of historical value and milestones, the SBPHS also represents an annual award for career achievement to a sworn and non-sworn member of the department in recognition of their dedication and commitment.
Here are some pioneering people who played a major role in the history of the city that you will discover at the Historical Society of the Police of San Bernardino:
At the turn of the 20th century, the name synonymous with law enforcement in San Bernardino County was Walter A. Shay Jr. His legacy as a peace officer began with stints as deputy sheriff and field marshal. from the city.
When the San Bernardino Police Department was formed in 1905, Mayor Hiram M. Barton appointed Shay (1866-1831) its first chief of police. Two years later he left to become a special agent of the Pacific Electric Railway in its eastern branch.
Shay held this post for a few years until he was chosen by Mayor Sam W. McNabb to become San Bernardino Police Chief again. After serving another two years, he returned to work in the railroads, this time as a special agent for the Arizona Division of the Santa Fe of the Coast Lines Railroad.
Shay was there for four years when he was once again named a senior city official by Mayor George H. Wixom, making him the first person to be appointed chief of police by three different mayors of San. Bernardino.
After a stint as Chief Special Investigator with the San Bernardino County District Attorney, Shay then began a 13-year term as San Bernardino County Sheriff.
Another man who contributed to the history of the police department was Ben Gonzales.
The San Bernardino native was hired by the police department as a patroller in 1959 and has been a staple of the force for nearly three decades. He was promoted to sergeant in 1966, lieutenant in 1971, captain in 1972, deputy chief in 1979, and in 1981 became the first Latino to serve as chief of police in San Bernardino.
A warm and compassionate man, Gonzales was appreciated and enjoyed working for the department, especially when dealing with the youth of San Bernardino.
In the summer of 1960, a group of teenagers – several of whom had already had constant problems with the police – approached Gonzales with the idea of starting an automobile club.
The boys – Gilbert Palamino, Richard Cortez, Charlie Macias, JR Silva, Johnny Canela, Larry Macias, Rudy Garcia and David Montiel – swore that there would be no problem, that it would be a “good” club and that the community would be proud of.
Gonzales liked the idea, but said there should be rules. He became their official adviser.
The Shifters, as the club was called, continue to thrive in San Bernardino today.
As one of the many law enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to protect the rest of us, Gonzales was nearly killed in the line of duty – twice.
The first incident took place in June 1969, when he was called to the scene where an armed man was holding several people hostage. After two hours, Gonzales managed to disarm the man.
The second touch of death occurred in December of the same year. Gonzales was injured when he and his brother, Eliodoro, (Lolo) were the first officers to arrive at a robbery at the Bank of America near the corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and 16th Street. One of the two men ran towards Ben Gonzales armed with a sawed-off shotgun. This man was shot, but the other suspect snuck in from behind and shot Ben Gonzales in the back. While falling, the thief shot the injured officer in the head. Miraculously, the bullet only grazed Ben’s skull. After checking on his injured brother’s condition, Lolo and another officer, named Angel, tracked down the second suspect running along Trenton Street.
Three weeks later, Gonzales was back to work.
Recipient of the 1975 J. Edgar Hoover Foreign War Veterans Gold Medal (awarded annually to the nation’s top law enforcement officer), Ben Gonzales was San Bernardino Police Chief from 1981 until upon retirement in 1986. Under his leadership, the crime rate was lowered and he was credited with establishing a crime analysis unit.
Gonzales, now 93, continues to live in San Bernardino and enjoys his retirement with Ermelinda, his wife of 71 years.
The San Bernardino Historical Police Society is located inside the town’s main police station at 710 N. D St. The museum is free and open to the public Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on special request with notice.
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