Department History

By: L. Murray Young

The first indication of formal police protection appeared in 1849, when the town, then south Reading, would hire special police officers as needed. All these part-time officers were hired by the hour (usually in groups of four or more). It is not known if they were uniformed; they did not carry weapons. Police protection was usually in evidence at town functions, celebrations or other events at which there would be a large attendance.

In 1864, the town of South Reading established a night watch. Three or four men would patrol the unlit streets to report fires, check the security of building and meet trains at the railroad station to escort drunken passengers to their destinations.

It wasn’t until 1871 that a Police Department was established by the town, now named Wakefield. The board of Selectmen appointed J.S. Batchelder Chief of eleven special police officers, all part-time. A jail was built in the basement of the new town Hall to house those arrested by the officers. Police transportation consisted of rented or borrowed carriages or carts.

From 1872 until 1889, the Board of Selectmen made annual appointments to the position of Chief of Police. For the years 1872 to 1874 and 1878 and 1879, Charles H. Davis served as both Police Chief and Fire Chief.

In 1889, the board of Selectmen appointed Charles E. Niles as the first full-time police officer at an annual salary of $600. The night watch and special police officers continued as in past years. A new office was established in the rear of the first floor of the Town hall, and was provided with a telephone. New cells with lodgings were added in the basement. It was the responsibility of the Chief of Police to answer all phone calls and perform all court duty, along with his other functions. Chief Niles served through 1891, working Monday through Saturday.

Alvin L. Vannah was appointed Chief from 1892 though 1897. He was also part of the night watch staff. In 1892, the town provided billy clubs, whistles and handcuffs for the chief and the night watch.

Two years later, the board of Selectmen appointed one special officer to be on duty at the Town Hall office on Sundays to provide the town with daily police protection.

From 1898 to 1902, Edgar A. Hallett served as Chief; John M. Cate held the position in 1903. The Board of Selectmen hired the first Police Chief from outside the town in 1904, then I appointed the six-year Police Chief of Manchester, Massachusetts to the position. Chief Thomas O.D. Urquehart remained in Wakefield until December 31, 1904, when he became the Chief of the Arlington Police Department.

Harvey M. Coffin became chief in 1905; Harvey G. Brockbank served from 1906 – 1908.

The first full-time day officer, James A. McFadden of the night watch, was appointed in 1906. Officer McFadden worked Monday through Saturday with an annual salary of $900. Two night watchmen remained at the same annual salary.

At an annual town meeting, the Town voted that, effective April 6, 1908, it would accept civil service regulations for police patrolman. The town voted to accept civil service regulations for the position of Chief on April 10, 1912.

In 1909, James M. Pollard would become Chief; he would serve for 27 years. The second full-time patrolman, Edward Poland from the night watch staff, was appointed, effective November 17, 1911. Officer Poland was assigned night-watch duty at the station to give the town 24-hour coverage. Only one night watchman now remained.

On June 1, 1913, New England Telephone Company installed a new telephone signal system. Seven boxes located throughout the town were connected to a new switchboard at the police station in the Town Hall. This enabled route patrolmen to call the station periodically.

Dr. Curtis Sopher, a local physician, was instrumental in establishing a horse-drawn ambulance, available for emergencies at a modest fee, stored at Hathaway’s stable on Mechanic St.

The first motorcycle officer, Joseph Preston, in 1914 used a motorcycle rented from Charles J. Martin agency, a Harley-Davidson dealer, at 107 Albion St.

By 1918, the department was comprised of seven men; the night watch was eliminated.

In 1919, the first police cruiser, a 1919 Nash touring car, was obtained for $1436.69 from Joseph Hughes Auto Agency at Main and Armory St. For four or five years prior to this year, motor vehicles had been rented, borrowed or commandeered for police use.

In 1920, the growing police department set up and operated a first aid room in the basement of the Town Hall. The same year, the Chief of Police earned an annual salary of $2200; a patrolman earned $1814.50.

The first death of a police officer in the line-of-duty occurred in the early hours of April 9, 1921. Patrolman James A. Preston, 26 years old, was on foot patrol on Lowell St., near Vernon St. While he was in the process of arresting a Melrose male and female on a statutory offense, the male suspect shot him four times.

In 1922, a second-hand Pierce Arrow touring car was purchased from a Cambridge dealer though the efforts of Dr. Sopher and a committee working to secure an ambulance. W.B. Keene Company of Malden built a new body, consisting of a metal-clad, bulletproof enclosure. The vehicle equipped with a first-aid kit and equipment, forcible entry tools and a rifle for riot control, and was stored in Barry’s Garage at 503 Main St., at the corner of Armory St. The total cost for the ambulance was $2143.44. It would be replaced on May 24, 1928 by a new Buick ambulance purchased at a cost of $3100 from Barry’s Garage.

A second cruiser was a 1924 Buick, purchased that same year from Barry’s Garage (formerly Hughes Auto Agency) at a cost of $2175.05, to replace the 1919 Nash.

A new Gamewell police signal system was placed in service on January 1, 1926. Five call boxes, installed throughout the town, would gradually replace the telephone call boxes.

Effective March 2, 1929, the town’s first two sergeants were promoted through a civil service promotional exam. The new sergeants were John G. Gates and George b. DeRoche. On March 18 that same year, an attempt at Town Meeting to remove civil service from the police department failed.

In 1935, the first radio communication equipment was installed in a cruiser connected to the radio frequency of the Arlington Police Department. This was used on a trial basis until 1936. It would become a permanent addition to the 1936 Ford cruiser in 1937.

Following the January 28, 1936 death of Police chief James Pollard, the Board of Selectman made an attempt to remove the position from civil service. There was a desire to appoint a chief from outside the department. When this failed, a civil service exam was conducted and Sgt. John G. Gates was appointed Police Chief from the civil service list effective September 8, 1936.

On May 7, 1936, a new Dodge ambulance, completely out-fitted, was accepted by town officials at a banquet held in the Town Hall. Bestowed by his family in the memory of the late Dr. Joseph W. Heath, a Wakefield physician, the Dodge was purchased from Classen’s Dodge in Greenwood. The 1928 Buick ambulance was then retired, and eventually sold. The Heath family would donate a second ambulance, accepted at a banquet on February 6, 1941. This new 1941 Dodge ambulance was completely equipped, and could carry two stretcher patients. Classen’s dodge dealership again supplied the vehicle; it was driven from Indiana to Wakefield by Edward Classen.

The first lieutenant in the Department was George B. DeRoche, promoted from Sergeant after a civil service promotional exam. Lieutenant DeRoche’s position became effective on March 1 1937. In 1941, Robert F. Fitz of Shumway Circle, a Boston businessmen and safety enthusiast who helped to establish M-1 Safety Squad of the Boston fire Department, was appointed as Wakefield’s safety director by the Board of Selectmen. Under the leadership of "Bob" Fitz, the Selectmen in January of 1940 established the "Wakefield Highway Safety Council." Some of the goals of the new Council included: erecting safety signs on all roads entering town, additional stop and speed limit signs where needed, schoolboy safety patrols at grammar schools and bicycle safety programs. The Wakefield Lodge of Elks supported the program by supplying the white belts and gloves for school safeties. The activities of the Wakefield Highway Safety council gradually wound down due to the entry of the United States into World War II with much local efforts being directed into Civil Defense activities.

In February 1942, an auxiliary police department of 145 citizens was organized because of World War II. Most of the volunteers completed the courses, conducted twice weekly for two months.

A new radio system, built by F.M. Link co., was purchased in 1943. A 25-watt two-way base station was installed in the police station with mobile two-way radios installed in three cruisers. This replaced the radio system that was connected to the Arlington Police Department.

In 1944, two patrolmen, Henry Galvin and John Clark, were added to the department. Many members of the department were at this time in the military service. Their positions were filled by the reserved force or by auxiliary police members.

Wakefield PD’s first boat was obtained in 1945, at a most of $650. This wooden outboard motor boat was obtained for patrolling Lake Quannapowitt and was kept at the Quannapowitt Yacht Club.

The growing needs of the Police Department were no longer served by the space at the Town Hall. In 1947, a site on the corner of Crescent and Centre Streets was selected for a new station and in 1949, the town voted to appropriate $180,000 for construction. Wakefield architect Edward M. Bridge designed the two-story fire-resistive building with a one-story garage at the rear. The cornerstone was laid on April 1, 1950, and the department moved into its new facility on November 13, 1950. Dedication ceremonies were held on November 17.

Installed in their new facility, the Wakefield Police Department grew. A new auxiliary police department consisting of 57 volunteers was organized in 1951. Sergeant Merritt Wenzel was their instructor. Effective July 10, 1952, four additional patrolmen were added to the department to compensate for the newly approved five-day work weed for officers.

A new Cadillac Miller ambulance was purchased for $7281.78 in 1953.

In 1954, women traffic supervisors were hired to monitor school children at various street intersections in the vicinity of the public schools. A new police boat with a trailer would be purchased in 1955 at a cost of $1970.07.

After the retirement of Chief John Gates on June 30, 1957, Sgt. J. Merritt Wenzel was promoted to the position. Achieving a record high top score on the civil service promotional exam, Chief Wenzel took office effective September 6, 1957. His department consisted of 1 Chief, 1 Lieutenant, 3 Sergeants, 26 patrolmen, 12 woman traffic supervisors and 8 reserve patrolmen.

New traffic rules and regulations were developed in 1961 by the new traffic division of the police department and were approved by the Board of Selectmen and the state Department of Public Works. Also in 1961, four police officers: Sgt. William Connors, Patrolmen Richard Cheever, Frank Skillings, and Arthur Bragg, organized a skin-diving or underwater recovery team to assist in water-related emergencies.

In 1964, another lieutenant’s position was established (the second) and was filled by Sgt. James T. McKeon effective May 1, 1964. Radar equipment was purchased and put in use for the first time in 1964. The first portable radios, a total of five, were purchased at a total cost of $3385 in 1965.

Two active members of the Department were lost with the passing of Sgt. Kenneth Collins on February 12, 1965 and Patrolman John L. Clark on January 13, 1966.

A fourth sergeant’s position was created in 1966, with Patrolman Anthony Bucci promoted to fill it effective May 1. That same year, an ice rescue boat was donated to the department by the Wakefield rotary Club.

Two additional patrolmen, added in 1967, brought department personnel to a total of 40.

In 1968, a new ambulance was purchased at a cost of $8810.56. Four additional patrolmen were added to the department roster in 1970, bringing the department total to 44. Chief J. Merritt Wenzel retired effective October 5, 1971.

Lt. William R. Connors, highest on the civil service exam, was promoted to Police Chief effective October 5, 1971.

A 1977 Chevrolet-Modular ambulance was purchased at a cost of $21,879.73 in 1977, and placed in service early the following year. The box-body style ambulance was painted white with an orange stripe.

On December 2, 1982, the town contracted the Life Line Ambulance, Inc., a private ambulance service located in Wakefield, to provide ambulance service to the town. The police department until that time had been operating the ambulance service since 1922 with emergency assistance from the fire department. On August 9, 1983, the board of Selectmen sold the Chevrolet-Modular ambulance to Life Line Ambulance Service, Inc.

In 1984, Lt. Thomas Campbell was appointed Administrative Assistant to Chief Connors.

Also in that year, all new Motorola radio equipment was purchased. A new radio base station was installed on the frequency of 471.7875 MHz with the call sign of WIG752. Also, new mobile and portable radios were placed in service on this same frequency. A new police department mutual-aid radio frequency was established, known as Boston Area Police Emergency Radio Network (BAPERN). Part of the new equipment is the 1983 computer system for Law Enforcement Agency Processing System (LEAPS). This is a computer connection with the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Boston, The National Crime Information Center (FBI) in Washington, D.C., and the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Boston. This computer replaced the old Teletype equipment installed several years ago. The dispatch center of the police station was remodeled to accommodate the radio and computer equipment and the installation of monitoring devices, including cameras and intercoms for the cell block and garage areas. An intercom system was also connected with the neighboring central fire station. In 1986 five new patrolmen were added to the police force.

In 1988, the auxiliary police force was discontinued. On April 26, 1988, the town voted by ballot to eliminate the police chief’s position from civil service regulations by an 87-vote margin. Police Chief William R. Connors retired effective June 1, 1991. With the Chief’s position removed from civil service, the Board of Selectmen conducted an exhaustive search for the new chief of police. Interviews with several individual candidates inside and out side the department were held periodically. The final selection was Lieutenant Stephen Doherty of the Watertown Police Department. The appointment of Chief Doherty was effective June 10, 1991. A three-year contract was signed to head the 44 man, 1.8 million dollar department.

In 1991, several in-house computers, the first for department use, were purchased and placed in service throughout the station. These computers are for the entry of all department activity including emergency and non-emergency calls. Also in 1991, Law Enforcement television Network (LETN) was installed. This is a series of training programs provided for law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The equipment includes a satellite dish on the station roof and special scramblers for the programs to restrict viewing only for police and other law enforcement agencies.

Lt. Thomas Campbell retired October 2, 1992; his position as administrative Assistant to the Chief was filled by Lt. John MacKay.

In 1993, the Department began adopting a community-policing model for Wakefield. This effort includes the establishment of a D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program for the public school system and the establishment of uniformed bicycle patrols for the lake and downtown retail areas. These initiatives are designed to involve the citizens of all ages in helping the Department deal with community problems and issues that directly affect them.

The Department’s hiring of four new officers in the summer of 1993 brought the first female officer, Janine Carmilia. After attending a sixteen-week police academy, the officers begin departmental training. The Department consisted of one chief, three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 34 patrolmen with four being inspectors.

See also: 2001 News 2001 News

This history compiled with the assistance of Chief Stephen Doherty and Patrolman Scott Mitchell.

Special thanks to the publishes of the book "Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake" for the use of the above information. Also thanks to the author of the chapter "Wakefield Police Department history" L. Murray Young