“If the mountain can’t come to you,” Sylvia Harper said, “you go to the mountain.” Sylvia Harper’s go-get-’em attitude is exemplified by the mountainous challenges she overcame throughout her life. Not only did she break down racial barriers, but she also became a symbol for strong females in the workplace. Although she is only 5-foot-3, she stood tall at the intersection of racial and gender inequality and her valor secured her a place among the other men and women on the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center mural.
Harper’s career in the San Francisco Police Department began in 1979, when, while on maternity leave, she expressed interest in the police department. Before she began her career as an officer, she was a student, athlete, wife, mother, and community member. Harper is a native to San Francisco, and grew up in Silver Terrace. She attended Saint Mary’s Cathedral High School and St. Mary’s College of California. She liked the college’s location in Moraga because it was far enough from San Francisco to feel like an escape, but still within a comfortable proximity to the city. As a college student, Harper excelled and had a busy social calendar. Not only was she a cheerleader, but she also played intramural football and was crowned the Homecoming Queen. She was also known as the “donut queen” because she would dedicate the wee hours of the morning to working with the campus baker. On top of all of this, she was also a blossoming pre-med student, but after encountering difficulty in her math classes, she switched to a biology and psychology major. Sylvia Harper went on to graduate from St. Mary’s in 1975 and then married her boyfriend, Maurice Harper, Jr. She had a daughter, Cherisse, in 1977 and two years later, had a son, Maurice Leejon. After her pregnancy with Maurice, she joined the San Francisco Police Department. Harper encountered numerous obstacles and challenges in her early career. She explained that “the women had to be tough because they were held to a higher standard. I always tried to retain my femininity. One [partner] told me ‘you drive like you have two kids in the back seat,’ and I told him that’s because I do drive with two kids in the back seat.”
Captain Sylvia Harper, a native San Franciscan, has served in the San Francisco Police Department since 1979.
In 1996, the SFPD began to utilize the diversity in their departments to make changes in the community. The women placed in authority positions were strategically promoted to serve communities that were respective to their minority. For example, according to Police Chief Fred Lau, “We’ll have an Asian American woman in Chinatown, a Spanish speaking Latino man in the Mission and an African American woman at Potrero.” One of these women was Sylvia Harper, who was appointed to Potrero Hill. She was able to succeed in her duties and her multidisciplinary background helped her excel in interpersonal relations. On Christmas morning of 1996, Harper assuaged a frenzied, worried community after a shooting and a stabbing occurred, promising that “your concerns will be my concerns” and assured that the safety of the community was a priority among the officers. In 1988 in the San Francisco Chronicle, there was a section entitled “Highest Rank Ever For Female Cops.” This summarizes the two women, one of which was Harper, that reached the highest rank ever attained by women officers, temporary lieutenants. Harper’s attitude is a unique factor in her success. She believes that “in order to embrace life, you have to do everything” and that your direction should always be forward. “No matter where you go in life,” Harper stated, “you only go that way once, so go all the way.”
In March of 2006, Sylvia Harper was promoted to head of department administration. Assistant Chief Heather Fong was in charge of promoting a handful of officers as her command staff . “I don’t believe that we’re going to miss a beat here,” Fong said about her new cohort, “everyone’s in place.” With Harper on her side, the department began to look optimistic.
As for her personal life, Harper remains busy as an officer and caretaker for her mother. Regardless of what the future may bring, Captain Harper has already made many positive contributions to the city of San Francisco.
— Olivia Walker
Burress, Charles. “Diversity in New S.F. Police Station Chiefs.” SF Chronicle. 8 Feb 1996.
Hoover, Ken. “Neighbors Protest Rowdy S.F. Clubs.” SF Chronicle. 31 Dec 1996.
“Highest Ever Rank For Female Cops.” SF Chronicle. 15 Apr 1988
“Sylvia (Marquis) Harper ‘75.” Saint Mary’s College of California.
Van Derbeken, Jaxon, and Jim Herron Zamora. “SFPD in Crisis / Acting Head Cop Speaks out / Fong Expresses Optimism — Names Command Staff to Run Department.” SFGate. 6 Mar 2003.