Richard Hongisto, 67; Ex-Sheriff in San Francisco Had Turbulent Career

Times Staff Writer

Richard Hongisto, whose two decades in San Francisco public office as sheriff, supervisor and -- briefly -- police chief were packed with controversy and pioneering efforts on behalf of minorities and women, has died. He was 67.

Hongisto died early Thursday at the Bayview district apartment he shared with his girlfriend. The cause of death was under investigation, but appeared to be a heart attack.

Hongisto straddled many worlds in his turbulent career. Of Finnish descent, he nevertheless used his Latino-sounding name to his advantage in political races. A white man, he joined San Francisco's police force in 1961 when it was an Irish Catholic old boys' haven -- then helped to unleash progressive change.

"He was a rabble-rouser right out of the gate," said his close friend Lee Houskeeper. Police brass "thought Dick was one of them.... He was white and they could talk to him. But ... a change was a comin'."

On the police force, Hongisto helped eliminate height requirements that worked against women and some minorities, Police Chief Heather Fong said at an informal memorial gathering Friday.

Hongisto was the first white officer to join ranks with the black Officers for Justice, and the only white officer to testify in federal court for departmental equity in hiring and promotion.

"He said, "I want to join, and not only that, I have a little printing press at home and we can have our own newsletter,' " said Rodney Williams, 75, one of the department's first African American hires.

Hongisto was born in Minnesota in 1936 and moved to San Francisco in 1942 with his parents, Gladys and Raymond Hongisto, and his brother, Donald. His father was a shipyard worker, his mother a fiery woman who helped run her son's campaigns from behind the scenes.

Both parents had a "sense of social justice and a strong association with people who were disenfranchised," said Donald Hongisto, 72. They "wanted us to do something useful. Dick walked with that as a kind of mantra."

Hongisto graduated from San Francisco State with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary social sciences. He later earned a master's degree in criminology at UC Berkeley.

He served for 10 years on the police force, and then, in 1971, made a successful bid for sheriff with what the New York Times described as a "coalition of liberals, radicals, minorities, homosexuals and the young."

Labeled the "hippie sheriff" by detractors, he began to reform San Francisco's jails, said current Sheriff Michael Hennessey, whom Hongisto hired to be the department's legal counsel.

Hongisto brought rehabilitation programs, counseling, legal services and education into the jails when those offerings had generally been available nationwide only to prison inmates, said Hennessey, who wore a "Reelect Hongisto the Sheriff" button from his friend's successful run in 1975 at the memorial gathering Friday.

Hongisto recruited minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and was the first elected official to march in San Francisco's gay and lesbian parade.

In 1977, Hongisto grabbed national attention when he refused a court order to evict mostly elderly Chinese and Filipinos from the International Hotel, which was eventually razed. He served five days in jail for contempt of court.

Later that year, he resigned to take a post as Cleveland's police chief. But he clashed with his equally unconventional boss, Democratic Mayor Dennis Kucinich. After Hongisto accused Kucinich of political interference with the police, Kucinich suspended him during a televised news conference -- and fired him the next day.

Hongisto went on to serve as the New York state prison system's director, but resigned amid controversy over a questionable campaign contribution after state Senate Republicans declined to confirm him.

After his return to San Francisco, Hongisto served three terms as supervisor, co-writing the city's landmark domestic partners law -- the first of its kind in the country -- with Supervisor Harry Britt. He also took strong stances when he opposed making the city's port home to the battleship Missouri, opposed a downtown stadium for baseball's Giants and advocated closure of the city's gay bathhouses at the height of the AIDS epidemic. He won a bid for city assessor in 1990.

Controversy followed. He was briefly named police chief in 1992, but a heavy-handed crackdown on demonstrators after the riots sparked by verdicts in the Rodney King Jr. beating trial prompted a backlash. When a free gay newspaper ran a suggestive illustration of Hongisto with a baton between his legs and the headline "Dick's Cool New Tool: Martial Law," officers responded by snatching 2,000 copies off the racks. Hongisto denied he had ordered the removal of the papers, but the Police Commission thought otherwise and fired him.

By not allowing Hongisto to resign, the city deprived him of a substantial pension. It was shortly thereafter that Houskeeper and Dennis Sanfilippo, who had recently won the California Lottery, ran into Hongisto.

"Sanfilippo hired him to do security for a homeless benefit concert," Houskeeper said. "It was the first time somebody -- at that very low point in Dick's life -- had reached out. His [third] wife had just filed for divorce. He'd lost his retirement. He'd lost everything."

Hongisto bounced back, building a security company of his own. But tragedy struck in 1994, when his fourth wife died of a crack cocaine-induced asthma attack. Then, in 1998, his business -- and later he -- filed for bankruptcy. But he picked up the pieces. Hongisto lost bids for supervisor and the assessor's seat in 2000 and 2002, but recently was doing "better than ever," Donald Hongisto said.

His death came of an apparent heart attack, after another chapter of domestic distress. Friends say Hongisto had been arguing with his 31-year-old live-in girlfriend early Thursday. He had asked the general manager of his security firm to come to the couple's apartment. The men were preparing to leave together when Hongisto collapsed in the kitchen.

The San Francisco medical examiner's officer said an investigation into the cause of death is pending.

In addition to his brother, Hongisto is survived by two children, Richard Joseph Colton Hongisto and Ashley Elizabeth Colton Hongisto.

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