US Herb Lee, SF’s first Chinese American police officer, dies

04:05  12 november  2017
04:05  12 november  2017 Source:   SF Gate

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Sgt. Herbert © San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Herbert "Herb" Patrick Lee Herb Lee, the first Chinese American cop in San Francisco, thought the way to help a troubled kid was to take him fishing for striped bass on San Francisco Bay.

And that’s what he did, thousands of times, over the course of his 30-year career.

“My dad grew up with nothing,” his son John said. “It was his way of helping a kid who started out with as little as he did.”

Herbert Patrick Lee, who died Nov. 1 of colon cancer at age 84, was a native of San Francisco and a student at San Francisco State University. He served for two years in the U.S. Navy. In 1957, according to the San Francisco Police Department, he became the force’s first Chinese American officer.

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His first years were spent as an undercover cop on the streets of Chinatown, where his fluency and his appearance were assets. He investigated gangs, and he tried to help youths get out of them. A lot of that work he did aboard his 25-foot fishing boat, the Ah Choo, which was berthed at Gaslight Cove.

“All the gang members knew him,” his son said. “He took a lot of them fishing. When they went fishing on his boat, they were just kids. I remember once, one gang was getting off his boat when a rival gang was getting on. There was no problem. They were just there to fish.”

Mr. Lee, who was promoted to sergeant, was a recruiter and a mentor to countless young officers and served as executive director of the Police Activities League, overseeing athletic and enrichment programs for poor children. Many of his PAL cadets went on to become cops, as did his son. He was also the first president of the California Asian Police Officers Association.

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Police Chief Bill Scott called Mr. Lee “a true pioneer.”

“His efforts to recruit more law enforcement officers of color helped make the SFPD one of the most diverse police departments in the country. He was a beloved friend, mentor and colleague and a shining example of how one person can make a positive difference,” the chief said.

Mayor Ed Lee said that even though it has been 60 years since Mr. Lee joined the department, “the impact of his service can still be felt today.”

In later years, Mr. Lee worked in the juvenile and narcotics divisions, and he toured schools and held drug-education assemblies. Sometimes he would appear with his all-police rock band, the Electric Blue. Mr. Lee, the lead vocalist, was known for his stirring rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”

His son recalled being in the audience at his school for one of his father’s performances.

“I cringed a little,” he said. “But the kids got into it.”

After retiring in 1987, Mr. Lee kept fishing and also played golf regularly at Sharp Park in Pacifica.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy, and by children Rick Lee of South San Francisco, John Lee of Moraga, Penny Sue of Los Angeles and Lynette Seid of San Diego.

A funeral was scheduled for Saturday in Daly City. Memorial donations may be sent to the Chinatown YMCA.

Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: srubenstein@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SteveRubeSF

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