Monday, November 28, 2011
While the establishment of the Middleborough Police Department is typically dated to 1909 when Harry W. Swift was named the first Chief of Police, the department in fact has a lengthy pre-history dating back decades prior to 1909 and newspaper accounts attest to the department's early characterization as a police force, as well as the existence of earlier chiefs heading the department.
Constables constituted Middleborough's earliest law enforcement force. Answerable to the Board of Selectmen, constables were responsible for upholding the laws passed by the General Court at Plymouth and later Boston, as well as local by-laws adopted by the community. In contrast to the respect with which law enforcement officials are generally held today, the 18th century constable held a thankless position, one which was frequently fraught with frustration and which involved no financial recompense. Not surprisingly, men usually tried to avoid the duty whenever possible.
Over time, however, the role of the constable within the community grew, particularly in the post-Civil War era when new responsibilities were assumed by the constabulary as the conception of public safety broadened and more and more demands were made for a full-time professional organization. By 1879, Leander M. Alden was not only serving as one of Middleborough's constables, but he was engaged as a special police officer and a truant officer who was also responsible for overseeing the town lock up or jail six nights weekly.
The public's growing concern over law and order matters was motivated by the rapid growth of the community, particularly around Middleborough Four Corners, and a perception of an increasing crime rate and was bolstered by the advocacy of the Middleboro Gazette and the Middleboro News, both of which supported an expanded and strong police force. The attention given local law enforcement concerns was but one aspect of the era's preoccupation with "improvement" which entailed the provision or expansion of municipal services including fire protection, public water and sewerage, gas and electric lighting, telegraphic and telephonic communication and naturally police protection.
The Middleborough constabulary that existed in the nearly half century between the close of the Civil War and 1909 was a force of eight to a dozen men engaged in the maintenance of public safety and order during the day time hours and included men such as James Cole, Samuel S. Lovell, Sylvanus Mendall, Everett T. Lincoln, Benjamin W. Bump, George W. Hammond and John W. Flansburg.
These men, like their colonial predecessors, received little financial remuneration for their efforts though they were reimbursed for out of pocket expenses. Because the men who occupied constabulary positions were not compensated for their duties, they more often than not were employed full-time elsewhere and attention to their law enforcement duties consequently sometimes proved irregular. Additionally, the constabulary's attention was by and large focused upon the downtown district, and rarely extended beyond the outskirts of Midleborough center. Yet despite these criticisms, Middleborough was afforded a level of public safety previously unknown.
More frequently than not, Middleborough's Victorian-era constables were engaged in the prosecution of laws related to the moral purity of the community, being seen especially by temperance leaders within the community as a bulwark against public drunkenness and general moral depravity. Consequently, much of their attention was devoted to the enforcement of local liquor laws. Fortunately, crimes against property such as burglary, larceny and arson (then known as incendiarism) were much less frequent, and violent personal crimes were virtually unknown.
For transgressors of the law, the town provided a lock up which according to one pundit of the era was "one of the most popular places in Middleboro'... It is almost constantly patronized, mostly by hen thieves and fast drivers." Located in the basement of Middleborough Town Hall constructed in 1874, the lock up consisted of brick-walled cells with concrete floors and iron doors. It was cold, damp and unhealthy. The condition of the lock up prompted the editor of the Middleboro News to advocate for its improvement in the summer of 1888, but little change was made and the dank cells remained in use for decades.
An important adjunct to the constabulary was the night watch, a generally lone individual charged with patrolling the community during the overnight hours as a deterrent to criminal activity. Certainly the value of the watch was proven many times over such as in May, 1874, when through the vigilance of the night watchman a potentially devastating fire was discovered and quelled before it could cause much damage. Voters demonstrated their appreciation of the night watch by appropriating the then considerable sum of $50 in 1875 to help fund it. (A decade and a half later, that figure reached several hundred dollars and remained there until formal establishment of the police department in 1909).
So satisfied were downtown residents with the night watch (and wary of nocturnal criminal activity) that they favored its expansion into a nighttime police force, most notably in 1887. These calls however went unheeded. The night watch would continue to operate for decades, in time becoming the most visible aspect of local law enforcement, the image of the sole night watchman on his lonely rounds eclipsing the view of the daytime constabulary in the public's mind. Prominent among Middleborough's night watchmen during this period were George Rich, Herbert L. Leonard and George E. Hatch.
Somewhat naturally, the strong element of protection afforded to the community during the evening hours and the desire for the creation of a night police was reflected in a demand for comparable protection during the day. In 1877 local residents called for the establishment of a permanent police force. Four years later, more specifically, "a day police [was] called for ... by the Middleboro Gazette." While such a police force was not formed, support for the constabulary was maintained and a Committee for the Suppression of Crime was eventually created to provide the local citizenry with a voice in local law enforcement matters. While the committee served a useful purpose in dramatizing the need for a modern police force, it also had the unfortunate result of politicizing public safety issues.
Throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, the Middleborough constabulary continued to evolve, assuming administrative functions and roles that would presage the modern police department. Modernization brought with it, too, a change in the way in which the constabulary was perceived by the public with records indicating that at times prior to 1909, the force of constables was referred to as a "police force" and a "police department". Additionally, the adoption of a modern organizational command structure brought with it the creation of the position of chief of police. As early as 1887 that title was in use, receiving official sanction in 1901 when long-serving constable Herbert L. Leonard was named Chief of Police by the Board of Selectmen.
The most significant step towards modernization, however, came in 1909 when ongoing challenges with the operation of the constabulary system of law enforcement prompted the Board of Selectmen to appoint constable Harry W. Swift to oversee the reorganized force of experienced constables as the modern Middleborough Police Department, thereby inaugurating a new chapter in Middleborough's public safety history.
Middleborough Police Department, Middleborough, MA, photograph, c. 1909
Pictured on the steps of the former Peirce Academy is Middleborough's "first" police department with Chief Harry W. Swift standing front row center. The nine man force was representative of a long tradition of constabulary-based law enforcement in Middleborough as well as a more modern organization and approach to law enforcement which was adopted in 1909.