When reformers took over City Hall in 1952, Thomas J. Gibbons, the newly appointed police commissioner named Frank Rizzo to his first command. The 30-year-old Rizzo had recently passed the civil service exam for sergeant and was considered a good match for a tough section of West Philadelphia. Rizzo’s propensity for raids on numbers parlors, brothels and speakeasies were sure to get results.
Rizzo’s aggressive style would also get criticism from the predominantly African-American community around the station house at 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue.
“The crime rate in West Philadelphia is the worst in the city and I am determined to clear up these conditions,” Captain Frank Rizzo told a contingent of citizens complaining about warrantless raids on private homes. A nine-person committee, which also met with Commissioner Gibbons, raised issues of “police brutality, illegal arrests, intimidation of prisoners under arrest, assignment of Negro police to “Red” cars, and the general relation of the police to the community.”
“I am interested in good government,” responded Rizzo. “I am not racially prejudiced. I do not run roughshod over the citizens in the district.” He showed off “a stack of warrants” and confiscated liquor stored as evidence in the basement of the station house.
Rizzo’s tactics at 39th and Lancaster made headlines that kept coming: “Worst In The City;” “Capt. Rizzo Refuses To Stop Arrests.” And more.
“Out in West Philadelphia, the district cops and the neighborhood kids have a nickname for Acting Capt. Frank Rizzo, who commands the 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue police station,” wrote Frank Brookhouser. “They call him ‘The Cisco Kid.’”
“Rizzo, who could become one of the legendary figures on the force, is a good officer, earnest, serious and efficient,” continued Brookhouser. But he is also something of a General Patton type—flashy, aggressive, a strict disciplinarian.”
“The Cisco Kid” nickname—a readymade from popular culture—would stick.
(William Sydney Porter, a/ka O. Henry, invented “The Cisco Kid” in “The Caballero’s Way,” a short story published in 1907. The young, handsome, Mexican-American Robin Hood “killed for the love of it or any other reason that came to mind.” With his speckled roan horse, “The Cisco Kid” rode from the printed page into the American popular imagination via 27 films, 1914 to 1950; 600 radio episodes, 1947 to 1956; 156 television episodes starting in 1950; and 41 Dell comics, 1950-1958.)
But Brookhouser, who noted that Rizzo’s nickname garnered fan mail, soon stepped back from Rizzo’s rising legend. “The overly zealous actions of Acting Captain Frank Rizzo, who has become known as ‘The Cisco Kid’ since his promotion from sergeant, have been causing a furor in West Philadelphia. There have been complaints from civic leaders, and it has reached the point where the DA’s office just doesn’t know what to do about him. Rizzo …has been making raids indiscriminately, according to the complaints. In one case he found two people sharing four bottles of beer in a home, charged them with operating a speakeasy. Raiding another house, he made arrests because there was dancing. After another arrest, he jammed a large group of people in two cells for hours. … There is such a thing as trying too hard, Captain.”
Rizzo wouldn’t last long much longer at 39th and Lancaster. Two months later, Commissioner Gibbons, looking to “strengthen control” in Center City, transferred Rizzo to the 19th District Station at 12th and Pine Streets.
You could sense a collective sigh of relief in West Philadelphia.
Ed R. Harris at the Philadelphia Tribune sounded downright gleeful: “That wasn’t an earthquake that hit Center City the other day. Just the reaction of the smart money boys when they learned that the ‘Cisco Kid’ was being transferred to 12th and Pine…Now we’ll really see what kind of raiding Capt. Rizzo can do.”
[Sources: “Worst In The City,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 29, 1952: “Group Protest Of Warrantless Raid In W. Phila.” Philadelphia Tribune, March 18,1952; “Capt. Rizzo Refuses To Stop Arrests,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 25, 1952; Frank Brookhouser, “It’s Happening Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, 1952, March 26, 1952 and June 30, 1952; “Gibbons Makes Midcity Shakeup, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 1952; Ed Harris, On the Town, Philadelphia Tribune, May 31, 1952: S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Camino Books, 1993, 2003).]
More PhillyHistory posts on Frank Rizzo here, here and here.