Rotea Gilford was born in 1927 in Willis, Texas. When he was a child, his family relocated to the Fillmore District in San Francisco where he would live the rest of his life. Gilford’s main objective throughout his career was connecting with the black community and making sure that unity was being created. Thus, Gilford grew up to be a San Francisco police officer and presented himself as a great example for the African American youth in his community.
Before joining the police department, Gilford attended San Francisco Polytechnic High School and also graduated from San Francisco City College. Gilford was also very athletic and played for the San Francisco City College championship basketball team in 1948. Following his education, he worked as a bridge toll taker and later a Muni bus driver.
Throughout his career as a police officer, Gilford made numerous friends, including politicians Willie Brown and Dianne Feinstein, both of whom would later serve as mayor. Gilford was also deemed executive director of the Mayor’s Council on Criminal Justice by Mayor George Moscone. Gilford worked to support four San Francisco mayoral administrations.
In 1968, Gilford made a ground-breaking discovery and solved a particularly difficult case involving a Muni bus driver who was shot and killed during the uprisings in San Francisco following the Martin Luther King, Jr., assassination. Gilford was also widely recognized for solving a case in which a serial killer was targeting only homosexual men in San Francisco in 1973. Gilford showed that he respected the rights of all people. Through his investigative work, he showed how deeply he cared about the liberties of the LGBTQ community, the youth, and the African American community.
He was well known for his role as a leader of the team of investigators who solved the “Zebra” killings in 1974, alongside Prentice Sanders. The “Zebra” killings were a series of racially motivated murders in which a total of 14 people lost their lives. This caused tension in the area and allowed the racial profiling of African American men to increase within the community. When Gilford and his team declared Dwight Stallings as a murder suspect, Gilford was confident in his belief that Stallings was guilty. Gilford said, “I know he bought ammunition [used in the shootings]; I don’t know if he ever pulled the trigger, but I know he was involved” (Zamora). Gilford’s contribution to the investigation helped solve the case.
Rotea Gilford, who served both the San Francisco Police Department and as Deputy Mayor was a ‘forceful advocate of black youth.’
According to records in the San Francisco Public Library, he was one of only two black police officers running for the position of sheriff in 1978.
Gilford was known as a “forceful advocate of black youth” (Sward). He recognized that there was a significant increase in the amount of inmates living in overcrowded jails and other correctional facilities. Gilford was the leader of a delegation of youth advocates and notably “urged the court to release 30 youths from the lockup within the next two months and place them in the care of volunteer counselors under court supervision” (DelVecchio). Gilford also investigated the SF Youth Guidance Center, located at 375 Woodside Avenue, as the center had allegations of abuse, violence, and overcrowding.
Gilford was also selected by Mayor Willie Brown to serve on the Recreation and Parks Commission. According to Mayor Brown, Gilford loved recreational activities and sports his whole life.
Gilford even reportedly taught Mayor Diane Feinstein about football in particular, and they ended up attending numerous 49ers games together, including Super Bowls.
Gilford coached even after he retired, choosing to help youth by offering them healthy alternatives. Rotea James Gilford passed away on March 14th, 1998. Gilford believed in the youth of the community and wanted to do all that he could to encourage them in a positive direction. He believed that incarcerated youths deserved to be provided with proper counseling and knew that they could become productive citizens if given the chance. Gilford’s impact on black police officers in the city was monumental. According to homicide detective Napoleon Hendrix, Gilford “was the lightning rod for black investigators. He set the standard that we follow.” Hendrix continued to explain, “He gave his all. He will be sorely missed. He affected a lot of people in this city” (Magagnini).
— Kristen Williams, Ceejay Garcia, and Zachary James
DelVecchio, Rick. “Court Takes a Hard Look At S.F.’s Youth Jail.” SF Chronicle. Six Star ed. 19 Jun 1989, p. 2.
Lewis, Gregory. “Rotea Gilford, Former Deputy Mayor, Dies at 70.” SFGate. 16 Mar 1998.
Magagnini, Stephen. “S.F. Youth Center Faces U.S. Probe.” SF Chronicle. Six Star ed. 5 Apr 1985, p. 2.
Sward, Susan. “Rotea Gilford—Advocate for Youth.” SF Chronicle. 17 Mar 1998.