Detroit Police Department marks its 150th anniversary

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — In addition to locking up robbers and murderers, the city's first police officers also dealt with a problem foreign to modern-day cops: runaway livestock.

In 1865, the first year of operations for the Detroit Police Department, officers made 3,056 arrests, and caught 200 loose animals and 1,700 stray geese. And with the automobile still a generation away, drunken citizens were carted to the police station in wheelbarrows.


In 1893, the department also was the first in the nation to hire a female police officer: Marie Owen.ur department has had a lot of firsts that have made us unique," said Detroit Police Sgt. Michael Woody, who in 2008 co-authored a book about the department's history. "We were the first to use vehicles as patrol cars, the first to use traffic lights, and the first to use radios for patrol. A lot of those firsts helped us become one of the premier police agencies in the country."

Those firsts and more will be celebrated Friday as the department kicks off its sesquicentennial celebration with a formal ball at Cobo Center. The invitation-only ball is one of a number of planned events, including the May opening of a police museum at Public Safety Headquarters.

The department has downsized in recent years along with the city's population. Since 2001, the force has dropped from more

than 3,000 officers to about 1,800. The budget has also remained stagnant; the $315 million Mayor Mike Duggan allocated for 2015 is $10 million less than the amount budgeted for the department in 1991.

Early policing

During Detroit's first 100 years, the city was a military post, and patrols were handled by military sentinels. In 1801, constables were appointed, and the following year, when the city's government was established, a town marshal was hired at an annual salary of $150.

In 1861, city officials moved toward establishing a regular police department, but for various reasons, the effort was delayed.

"Citizens didn't want a police department because of the taxation that came with it," longtime Detroit journalist and historian Mickey McCanham said. "There was a lot of resistance."

The difficulty in mustering troops from Fort Wayne to stop one of city's first race riots in March 1863 prompted the City Council to expedite establishing the Detroit Metropolitan Police Department in 1865, nearly 30 years after the nation's first municipal police force was formed in Boston. The first Detroit officers, numbering 40, hit the streets May 15.

"The city really needed a police department at that time because there was a lot of lawlessness with soldiers coming back from the Civil War and living in brutal conditions," McCanham said.

"When I started with the department we didn't even have patrol wagons," said Pramstaller, who earned $50 a month. "If we found a drunk so helpless he couldn't navigate, we started looking for a wheelbarrow. Everybody had a little garden in those days and usually a wheelbarrow."John P. Pramstaller, a Detroit police officer from 1880-87, described working conditions to The Detroit News in 1938.

Automobile, prohibition, riots

Detroit's proximity to Canada and its status as a manufacturing hub often made policing the city difficult, Woody said.

Michigan banned alcohol sales in 1917, three years before national Prohibition went into effect. Rum-runners smuggling booze from Canada, and the violence that came with the territory, proved troublesome to Detroit's cops.

The department's 1920 report to the City Council captured the violence: "In the last 90 days of the year 1920, 31 men, 9 of them being killed, while 6 policemen were shot, 2 of them giving up their lives almost instantly."

Thousands of African-Americans in search of auto factory jobs were lured to Detroit during the 20th century, leading to racial tensions and riots in 1943 and 1967.

"Detroit has historically been a boom town with the auto industry, and that comes with both positives and negatives," Woody said.

Police museum coming

Liz and Charles Augustus of Detroit look at a DPD gun collection owned by Detroit Police Historical Society's Joseph Corsetti during the Detroit Police Department's 150th anniversary in the "Blue & Silver Ball" gala at Cobo Center in Detroit Friday niht.

There have been previous efforts to set up a Detroit police museum.

A space was set aside in a small room near the lobby of the former police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien, and there also was a small museum set up in 1987 at the Women's City Club at 2110 Park, but those efforts petered out for various reasons, said retired Detroit police officer Jeffrey Lemaux, who is setting up the new museum on the third floor of Public Safety Headquarters.

"Right now, I'm going through bins of stuff and setting up displays," said Lemaux, who has collected Detroit police memorabilia for 30 years.

"There will be lots of pictures, and old uniforms. As we get up and running, we expect people will donate more items."

Lemaux is getting 501c(3) status for the nonprofit Detroit Police Historical Society to allow donors of artifacts or cash to receive tax breaks.

The Detroit Public Safety Foundation is donating money for some displays, and is also footing the bill for Friday's black-tie ball, said Lt. Elaine Miles of the Chief's Neighborhood Liaison Office.

"The ball is the kickoff of the celebration," Miles said. "We have other activities planned throughout the year."

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