History of the La Crosse Police Department
The Early Years
By Retired Sgt. Daniel J. Marcou, 1990
On November 9, 1841, Nathan Myrick arrived and began building his small trading post near what is now Riverside Park, and named the area Prairie La Crosse. At the time, the area was inhabited by the native Indians and under the protection of Fort Crawford in Prairie Du Chien. The military kept what peace there was.
Wisconsin entered the Union in 1848 and La Crosse County was formed in 1851. Shortly thereafter, the residents of La Crosse County elected their first Sheriff, A. Eldred, and Hiram Knowton became the first La Crosse County Court Judge.
The first La Crosse County Jail was notorious for its lack of security. It was built on sand and, as a rule, the evening’s miscreants would be gone by morning if they were sober enough to dig their way out.
The City of La Crosse incorporated as a City in the year 1856. It grew very rapidly because of its location on the Mississippi where it met the La Crosse and the Black River. The residents shared their city with loggers, railroad workers and steamboat traffic. Because these hard men came to La Crosse to spend some of the little leisure time they had, prostitutes and gamblers found they could make a good living in La Crosse.
In the year of incorporation, the City Fathers decided that law and order should be enforced by a City Marshall. The first Marshall was Peter Burns. Each ward elected a constable, and watchmen were hired during special events to keep the peace.
In spite of this attempt at order maintenance, the citizens found that part-time law enforcement still could not bring the type of peace to the community that was desired. The loggers, raftsmen, railroad workers and rivermen came to La Crosse for reasons other than peace and quiet. The result was described in A History of La Crosse 1841-1900 in this way: “In consequence on the streets near the river front there were places where disorder, brawling, gambling, and indecent behavior were evidence.”
The gambling, brawling, and, in particular, the houses of ill repute became intolerable to the citizens of La Crosse to the point that on July 6, 1857, a group of 300 citizens met on the Court House Square. After some fiery rhetoric, the group moved on to the St. Charles House, a well-known house of prostitution, and burned the house to the ground.
As a direct result of this act, the City hired two night Policemen, George Staley and Francis Blake. The citizens of La Crosse and the local newspaper were still in favor of a full-time police force, but pressure was not enough to bring it into existence.
In 1861, the military presence in the City of La Crosse brought about by the Civil War actually created a certain stability to La Crosse. The system of policing that existed continued. The Marshall kept peace by day and the Night Watchmen kept peace by night.
After the Civil War, the Marshall-Night Watchmen system proved to the citizens to be inadequate. The City of La Crosse was getting a reputation as a bawdy town and the citizenry did not like it. On August 13, 1869, a group of forty-one influential citizens, including Gideon Hixon and Cadwallader C. Washburn, a famous Civil War Cavalry General, asked for five new Policemen and a full-time police force. The City Council denied this request.
The pressure on the City Council increased until finally the La Crosse Evening Democrat, a newspaper of that time, demanded something be done about the conditions existing in La Crosse described as follows: “When every neighborhood is covered with these sink holes and when every block has at least one-third saloons, we deem it a public duty to cry out against these things and have them abated.”
As usually happens when elected officials are not sensitive and responding to the will of the majority, the election of 1870 brought a candidate, who was listening to the citizens of La Crosse, into the office of the Mayor. The newly-elected Mayor, Theodore Rodolf, described the feelings of the citizens of La Crosse when he stated in his inaugural address: “Our city, from our location on the Mississippi River, becomes necessarily the headquarters of a heterogeneous mass of people, whose avocations are frequently the reverse of honest, and the good name of La Crosse has long suffered from their depredation and lawlessness. Our Police Force has been entirely inadequate, yet let us hope that much that was charged against the safety and morality of our city has been greatly exaggerated.
Immediately fulfilling a campaign promise, Mayor Rodolf nominated John Simonton, a former Civil War Army Colonel, as the La Crosse Police Department’s first Chief of Police. The La Crosse Police Department was born on that day, April 12, 1870.
The first members of the force and their duties were Adam Jacobus, First Day Patrolman; Theodore Loomis, Second Day Patrolman; Tom Daley, First Night Patrolman; Henry Clem, Second Night Patrolman; and Peter Moe was assigned to the Railroad Depot.
John Simonton immediately took his job seriously and conducted his first police raid on a gambling house, which was also a house of prostitution, on April 28, 1870. The La Crosse Evening Democrat commented as following on the raid: “It does our soul good to record this first great work of our gallant Police, who deserve all the praise words can bestow for breaking up one of the meanest and most dangerous holes in our city.”
With the advent of the Police Department, the city immediately became more orderly. Punishment for the people who ran afoul of the law could be prison, fines, or to be ordered to work on the chain gang which made big rocks into smaller rocks and was located at 4th and Main Street.
Since the Chief of Police, at that time, was a political appointment, it then followed that when the administration of the city changed from one party to the other, it often would mean that a new Chief of Police would be appointed. Often this new Chief would make personnel changes immediately on the department. Some officers were so effective that they were kept on repeatedly, no matter what the political affiliation of the Chief of Police.
One such office who later became Police Chief (1874-1884) was Frank Hatch. Because he was so effective, he was not popular among the criminal element. The La Crosse Evening Democrat of 8/1/71 reported that Hatch’s enemies have threatened to “maul the ground with him, cut his throat, draw and quarter him, shoot holes in him, and blow ashes in his eye.” Hatch, who was not impressed by these threats, responded in print to these thugs by stating “if they should try, the city would have numerous pauper’s funerals.”
In these early years, the Police Department patrolled on foot, on horseback, and in a patrol buggy pulled by a horse. When working his beat, a policeman was left to his own devices since there was no radio with which to summon help. He would be issued a nightstick and a Smith and Wesson revolver, and given little training or guidance. There were also a few rules and regulations.
La Crosse thought highly of its Police Department in the early years. The La Crosse Evening Democrat said of the Police Department, “Our City, previous to the establishment of a police force, has long been noted for its gang of rascals, but now there is no more quiet and orderly city on the river.”
The Police Department came under fire in 1880 for its lack of efficiency. The La Crosse Mayor, in a special meeting n November 1, 1889, stated, “I am of the opinion that the complaint of inefficiency on the part of the police force in the City of La Crosse does not arise so much from the personnel of the force as from the utter absence of rules and regulations for their guidance and government.”
The Mayor appointed a committee and by November 15, 1889, this committee recommended a set of rules which the City Council accepted. This was the first set of Rules and Regulations for the La Crosse Police Department which were formalized.
Politics in police work still was a problem. Chief Hugh H. Byrnes became one of the leading voices to champion the cause of removing politics from Police Departments. An idea he suggested in 1894 because State Law in 1897. At that time, the State created a Board of Police and Fire Commissioners for cities in Wisconsin. The law stated, “There shall be a board of Police and Fire Commissioners consisting of citizens, not more than two of whom shall belong to the same political party, when appointed.”
This non-politically affiliated group was first appointed in La Crosse on May 3, 1897. Their duties were to set standards, test, hire and fire Police and Fire Department members. When someone was fired, were also to hear appeals of the fired employees. Additionally, they were to hear complaints against the Police and Fire Departments.
Although the group was still appointed by the Mayor and politics still entered in to the process, it served to somewhat insulate the Department from the political process. The Police and Fire Commission is still in place today and was found to be much preferred to the change of Department every time a new political party entered the Mayor’s Office.
The Police Department of the 1800’s came into being at the demand of the citizens of La Crosse. In the 1800’s, the La Crosse Police Department developed a reputation for being responsive to the needs of the people of La Crosse and became a reflection of the community that they served. In 1897, the State adopted an idea forwarded by Chief Huge Bryne of the La Crosse Police Department and a highly effective system of maintaining high standards on Police Departments was developed (the Police and Fire Commission concept) and still exists to this day. At this time, a reputation for the La Crosse Police Department being a leader in law enforcement was born, and this tradition continues to this day.