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From robbery victim to chief of police, a trailblazer fights crime in San Mateo

By Amanda Schwab | 2 Nov 2010

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San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer never planned to go into law enforcement. She is now the first female police chief in San Mateo. (Photo: Amanda Schwab)

San Francisco, 1982: The man sprang from beneath a stairwell in the lobby of Susan Manheimer’s apartment building and held a knife to her 2-year-old daughter’s neck. He wanted money.

Manheimer’s hands were full with grocery bags. The plastic toy shopping cart her little girl had been pushing was useless as a weapon for self defense. But then the part-time waitress remembered her tip money — a bunch of dollar bills. She hurled them at the man, distracting him just long enough for her to grab her daughter.

“Get away, get away,” Manheimer screamed, running down the street to the nearest grocery store in Haight Ashbury to call 911. Within minutes, a swarm of police cars arrived. She would learn that the man was wanted for multiple rapes and stabbings in the area.

“I remember thinking,” she recalled 28 years later, “if there are people like this out there, I want to be able to do something to protect my family and community and do something to change all of this.”

Manheimer now leads the San Mateo Police Department and is one of the most influential police chiefs in the country. Back then, she and her husband were young parents, and she worked on consumer protection and “call for action” programs at KCVS radio. A career in law enforcement wasn’t on her mind until that terrifying encounter in the stairwell.

She enrolled in a series of self-defense classes and began helping members of the San Francisco Police Department identify the assailant. A number of those officers encouraged her to enroll in the city’s police academy, although the most influential support for the idea came from her husband.

“Decisions are never all that easy,” Manheimer said, “but I chose to enroll in the police academy. It was very tough, very militaristic.  They were very strict; a lot of push-ups, a lot of marching.”

Manheimer had always been street savvy and immersed in the virtues of public service. She grew up in the Bronx with a father who was a city councilman. Manheimer went on to study business management at St. Mary’s College in Maryland and earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from San Diego State University.

After graduating from the academy and joining the San Francisco Police Department, she worked for 16 years in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s grittiest neighborhoods. Frequently, she served on undercover teams as a robbery decoy, luring in criminals by using herself as the bait.

One of her fondest memories is of how she and the other officers cleared the Tenderloin of drug dealers on Halloween so that children could safely go trick-or-treating. “We actually made deals with the drug dealers,” she said. “We’ve arrested most of them already, so we know who they are and everyone knows a kid, has a kid or has a soft spot for kids.”

Manheimer went on to become one of the first women to hold the rank of San Francisco police lieutenant and then captain. In 2000, she became the first woman police chief in San Mateo, and this year was named the first female president of the California Police Chiefs Association. But, according to colleagues, the chief would prefer that her gender not define her accomplishments.

“She says that she doesn’t want to be seen as a trailblazer, but she is, whether she likes it or not,” said Lt. Wayne Hoss of the San Mateo Police Department.

To describe Manheimer as busy these days would an understatement. She is perpetually running late, but that’s because she stops to say hello to virtually everyone she encounters. Her office is decorated with hats she wore during various stages of her career, along with two Samurai swords she collected on a trip to Japan and numerous photos of her children.

Her daughter is a prosecutor in San Mateo County. Her son graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and is serving in the Marines.  He has done a tour in Afghanistan. “I said to my son, ‘how come you had to choose the Marines, and how come you have to choose to go to the war?’ And he said, “Well, Mom, how come you did undercover work in the Tenderloin?’ So then I just had to be proud.”

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