The History of the La Crosse Police Department
1930 - 1950
By Retired Sgt. Daniel J. Marcou, 1990
The 30s saw the welcome end of prohibition but the beginning of the depression. Law Enforcement, during this decade, was a respected profession and brought much coveted job security. Hard times meant more people looking for easy money. Names like John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Pretty Boy Floyd found Wisconsin a pleasant place for their ill-gotten gains.
Because of this trend, La Crosse bough an armored patrol car in 1934, complete with cast iron plates over the radiator and gun turrets for the occupants. On July 30, 1935, Officers responding to a report of a disturbance at the La Crosse County Jail, located in those days at 10th and Zeisler, did not think to utilize this car, and before the day was out, they would wish they had. After a lengthy car chase and numerous shots fired at and by the pursuing Police Officers, two men laid dead in a stolen cab in a ditch off the road between La Crosse and La crescent, after La Crosse Police Officers foiled their attempted jail break.
Ironically, in retrospect, one of the most hazardous actions of the chase may well have been to cross the Municipal Bridge over the Mississippi River. On August 9, 1935, just ten days after the attempted jail break, a car driven by Captain Blinn struck a bridge support while crossing the bridge and a portion of the west section of the bridge plummeted into the waters below, taking the vehicle with it. Blinn survived the mishap which happened at 1:30 in the morning, but his two passengers, Captain and Mrs. Francis Landrieu of 2331 Market Street, died.
In 1937, the La Crosse Police Department would start an event which would become one of the major social events of the year through the 30s and 40s. In 1937, the first annual Policeman’s Ball was held at the Avalon. The ball would feature such big names as Harry James and Frank Yankovich, and would not be discontinued for another forty years.
On December 5, 1937, another La Crosse Policeman would fall to the ground, mortally wounded while protecting the City of La Crosse. Officer Joseph Donndelinger would die in a face to face shootout with a criminal who had taken a fellow Officer hostage at gunpoint. Officer Donndelinger would incapacitate the would-be kidnapper, but not before he was shot three times himself. The kidnapper was also hit three times by Officer Donndelinger’s bullets, but he would survive to be sent to prison. Officer Donndelinger would hold onto life for five days before the brave man would succumb to his wounds.
In 1938, the Police Department purchased a fleet of radio cars which may have made a great deal of difference had they been available on December 5, 1937. The saying that would soon become popular in law enforcement would be, “You can outrun the Officer, you can outrun the car, but you cannot outrun the radio.”
In 1939, La Crosse would see a brand new bridge over the Mississippi River from the end of Cass Street to replace the bridge which collapsed in 1935. The La Crosse Police Department would also say goodbye to Chief John Webber who had served as Chief of Police since 1907.
Captain Herman Rick was promoted to Chief of Police to replace Webber. Rick was assumed to be fit for such an undertaking since he had been second in command since his promotion to Captain in 1929.
With the 40s came World War II. Officers from the La Crosse Police Department were told by the City Fathers that their jobs would be waiting for them when they returned if they wished to enlist to aid in the war effort. Many Officers did, indeed, enlist. Some of these Officers who answered their country’s call were Officers Christie, Thomsgard, Walchak, Schmuck, Kostecki, Weber, and others.
The war years were an interesting time to be a La Crosse Police Officer. Due to the large training facility operation at Camp McCoy, La Crosse would be inundated weekly by CI’s who felt that in a very short time they might be giving their lives on a distant shore. This would be their last chance to enjoy life to the fullest. This sort of enthusiasm being expressed by such a large number in such a small area created problems for the Police. They would be dealing with large numbers of people in the downtown area each weekend, which were somewhat comparable to the Oktoberfest crowds of the 80s. Chief Rick was able to obtain replacement Officers for those he lost to the military but, other than that, no additional help was received. Officers of this time period could be expected to work long hours and overtime pay was not yet in their vocabulary. Chief Rick arranged for the Department to buy a paddy wagon called “the Black Maria” which could be seen jockeying intoxicated servicemen back and forth from Third Street to the Police Department at Fifth and State.
Even though there were many disturbances and it was necessary to deal with large groups of people, Officers who worked this area explained that these situations could be handled by fewer Officers because when an Officer arrived on the scene, his uniform commanded the respect that he deserved. His presence, more often than not, ended the disturbance. If someone did not wish to cooperate, Officers were issued batons and come-alongs (a metal gripping device designed to control by administering a sharp pain to the area of the wrist) and they were expected to use them.
In 1943, Office Len Bennet became the Departments first Traffic Safety and School Safety Officer. This was the predecessor to today’s Community Services Division. Most other community services were done by the Officers themselves on their own time. Officers made yearly trips to the hospitals to give gifts to sick children hospitalized over Christmas. This sort of goodwill continues today.
Another yearly event was the Annual Kids Ice Races which were co-sponsored by the La Crosse Police and Fire Departments. This extremely popular event allowed the kids to get together with cops and fireman. The kids would compete and the cops and fireman would entertain the crowd with comedy skits.
The end of the war brought to La Crosse and other police departments the concept of greater professionalism through training. The La Crosse Police Department, as well as police departments across the country, began to spend more time training Officers, and the Police Department as a paramilitary organization because a popular concept.
Officer Bill Boma became a very active police trainer in many areas. His favorite area of expertise was the area of self defense, specializing in techniques which were very applicable to police work.
In 1947, the first parking meters were placed in the downtown area and enforcement of these was handled by members of the Motorcycle Squad, which was still very active.
Chief Herman Rick would finish the decade as Chief of Police. Very little had changed in La Crosse for the Police Department.