Isiah ‘Ike’ Nelson III is remembered as an amazing police officer and a hero. Born and raised in San Francisco, Nelson attended City College and received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in public administration from Golden Gate University (Maatz). He and his wife, Dorian Nelson, had two sons, Gabriel and Anthony.
Nelson started working at the San Francisco Police Department in 1970. He worked for several departments including patrol, narcotics, and intelligence. According to Larry Maatz, a writer for the SF Examiner, Nelson was also named head of the burglary detail. Nelson beat the odds in 1986, becoming the youngest commander, as well as the first African American commander on the force. This sparked controversy within the department; some claimed that Nelson did not have enough experience to fill the new position. However, the SF Examiner wrote about how he defied the odds and was thought of as “one of the rising stars in the next generation of police administrators.”
One of Nelson’s most heroic moments was in October 17, 1989, during the Loma Prieta earthquake. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Nelson oversaw the evacuation of Candlestick Park. It was a packed stadium with 60,000 people in attendance of game three of the Giants vs. A’s World Series. Nelson successfully helped evacuate the whole stadium, helping mitigate the amount of injuries. The Commissioner of Major League Baseball at the time, Fay Vincent, remembers Nelson’s effort as being “perfect” (Brown). Nelson helped Vincent remain calm and set the tone for the evacuation. He was able to alert the spectators and help them evacuate effectively and safely. Nelson’s partner Jorge Costa described his methodical and professional process as a breathing practice for Nelson: he would “inhale the fast and furious information and details and mood swings based on the latest reports and exhale a plan of action for the officers, the crowd, and the commissioner” (Brown).
Isiah Nelson was a hero during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, safely evacuating thousands of spectators from Candlestick Park.
Even though his wife and sons were amidst the chaos, Nelson made sure that the other civilians were a priority and that they were safe before sending an officer to find his family. Once his family was reunited, Nelson escorted people who had been injured to the hospital. According to an interview with his wife Dorian Nelson in 2014, she said her husband “gave the baby a kiss, and turned right around and drove back to San Francisco. . . . It was 4 in the morning” (Brown). It was his priority to make San Francisco a better and safer place, in whatever way he could—no effort was too small for him.
Tragically, Nelson was killed in a motorcycle accident on Interstate 280 while returning from a security detail on April 14, 1990—less than a year after his heroism at Candlestick Park. He was only 36 years old at the time of his death, leaving behind his wife and two sons. The Hanging Gardens on Interstate 280 are named in memory of Isaiah Nelson. His amazing career was short-lived but he dedicated a strong 19 years to the force, where he worked himself up from rookie to Commander. He had to overcome the scrutiny of being an African American and the pressure of being so young.
Nelson’s fellow officers will never forget the memory he left behind. The San Francisco Police Department website has an Officer Down Memorial Page where friends of fallen heroes can write reflections for their loved ones. Nelson has a myriad of heartfelt messages written in his name. Many have written that he will never be forgotten. Vivian A. Bruce, a retired Sergeant, wrote: “Some have tried to imitate you, but you remain unique. It saddens me still that you left us so soon having given so much with the guarantee of even greater deeds to come . . . Rather, it was a vast shadow that you bore. I am forever grateful he was cast my way.” This reflection was left on December 26, 2013, over 23 years after his death. Not only was Nelson an amazing officer, but he also impacted the lives of many outside of his police work. His memory will always live on among those who he touched and those who benefited from his work.
— Megan Woods and Evita Martinez
Brown, Daniel. “Earthquake World Series: The Hero of Candlestick Park.” The Mercury News. 3 Mar 2017.
“Commander Isiah Nelson, III.” The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP). 26 Dec 2013.
Maatz, Larry. “New Police Chief ’s Inner Circle: His Brother, First Black.” SF Examiner. 11 Jan 1986.
Maatz, Larry. “S.F’s New Top Cop Enters on High Note.” SF Examiner. 17 Jan 1986.
Maatz, Larry. “Tough Decisions on Top Brass Face S.F’s New Police Chief.” SF Examiner. 9 Jan 1986.