A History of the Fredonia Police Department

bDGWALaw enforcement in the community that became Fredonia began at the County level with the Sheriff and his deputies and at the Town level with George Peirce, elected “Constable & Collector” for Pomfret on 5 April 1808. No doubt it was the constable as the local official who had the immediate responsibility for policing the community.

When Fredonia was incorporated by an Act of 2 May 1829, the law granted the new Village of Fredonia the “power to organize, establish and maintain a village watch.” However, the Town’s policing must have seemed sufficient since the Trustees’ minutes did not mention such an officer. After all, if the Pomfret constables had maintained the peace satisfactorily from 5 April 1808 through 1 may 1829, it would hardly have seemed necessary to add another individual (and more expense for the new village) on May 2nd.

On 27 March 1855 the Village Charter was amended to allow the voters to elect a police constable, that is, someone with the same powers, within the Village, as the Pomfret constables had in the Town. The first such individual was Samuel G Wood, elected Police Constable at the annual meeting on 2 April 1855. He continued in that office in 1856 but resigned on 18 October 1856 and was replaced by Ezra P Thompson. Aaron H Hart was elected Constable in 1857 and 1858. On 2 July 1858 the board authorized Hart to appoint two assistants to keep watch on the night of the 2nd and the day and night of the 3rd “being the day on which the 4th of July is celebrated in this Village.” (In 1855 the 4th fell on a Sunday.) On 7 July Hart and his two assistants E.P. Thompson and Joseph Cochran, were voted to receive $3.00 for their services, i.e., $1.00 each.

In the years that followed, various individuals were elected to the position. They were Aaron Brand, Irving W Holt, and Asa P Johnson. In 1866 the Village Charter was amended to allow for a Village Constable to be appointed by the Board rather than elected by the citizens of Fredonia. That seems to have been an attempt to bring the policing powers more directly under the control of the board. The amendment also stipulated that the constable should “have the same powers in the execution of process as a peace officer or constable elected in towns.”

Trustees themselves were given the power to enact ordinances, rules and regulations whose purposes included suppressing vice, preserving the public peace, “to establish and maintain a competent police, “ to appoint night watchmen, and to maintain a lock-up.

From a modern point of view it is interesting to note that in May 1867 and again in March 1868 the Constable was directed by the Trustrees to “forbid the boys from playing in the parks (Barker Common).”

On 15 March 1869 Police Constable Asa P Johnson was named “the police officer of the Board of Health.” His task was to see to it the board met when requested by any one of its members. The Board of Health figures prominently in the Trustees’ Minutes and in The Fredonia Censor so there may have been serious community health concerns at the time.

In 1886 , the position of night watchman was added, and for the first time, salaries were mentioned. The night watchman was to receive $100.00 for the year, the Village Constable $50. This lasted through 1889. From 1890 through 1896 there was only a Constable with, on occasion a “special Village Constable” or “special policeman.”

In 1897 there was another change. A huge addition had been made to the original, 1884, Village reservoir in 1896 which apparently called for a “watchman at the reservoir,” a position that began in 1897 and ran through 1917. In the same year, 1897 the night watchman’s position reappeared.

The record in 1900 is particularly interesting. Elected by the board were the Reservoir Watchman, the Constable, the Night Watchman and –Solon B. West—the Janitor for Village Hall, also Pound Master, and also “Special Police without compensation.” The same arrangement appeared in 1901 except that West was designated “Chief of Police without compensations.” The Fredonia Censor commented “Solon B. West becomes Chief of Police, to the dignity of which office he is well fitted.”

It seems clear that the Censor didn’t see the lack of compensation as unusual enough to comment on, and certainly not as demeaning. It may be that there was an understanding that the salaries for the other positions he held were enough compensation for whatever being “chief” entailed. Was he to oversee the Constable and Watchman? That may be what a 1913 entry in the Trustees’ minutes meant when they chose West to be janitor of Village Hall and caretaker of Lafayette Park (Barker Common) at $250.00 per year, and adding that he was “to act as Chief.” There was no one else, except the Constable and Watchman to be Chief over.

Fredonia was getting larger and running it was becoming more complex. That the board was inching its way toward a full-fledged Police Department seems clear. At a 1915 meeting the board again chose West to be janitor at $300 per year but “subject to a reduction of $100 in yearly salary to take effect at such time as the board may elect upon the appointment of a regularly employed policeman, also to act as Chief of Police and Superintendent of Parks.”

In 1917 they took another step. Gone was the night watchman, replaced by a four-man “Special Police Force for the year.” In 1918 a motor-cycle policeman was hired by the board at $75.00 per month with a telephone supplied by the Village; also hired were Special Police. In addition, the President (Mayor) appointed a “police Committee,” the first time since 1829 that the board did not act as a committee of the whole in policing matters.

In 1919 we still had a Chief of Police and Village Constable, but in 1920, although the Chief was reappointed, the vote on the Constable was “delayed.” It never took place and on 12 April 1920 the minutes refer, for the first time in over 90 years, to a Police Department, although it was not until 1926 that a full-time patrolman and a night patrolman were named.

That was the situation in 1926 when Chief Louis J Hard and patrolman Jack Williams were joined by Floyd E Thompson. (In 1951 then Chief Thompson celebrated his 25th anniversary as a member of the department.)

In outline, we may say that Fredonia had its first policing with Constable Samuel G. Woods in 1855, its first Chief in 1901 (Colom B. West), and its first Police Department in 1920.

Prepared by Douglas H. Shepard