Red Deer’s Police Department, 1911. (Red Deer Archives P4390)

Michael Dawe: Overseeing unruly constables was a tough job for Red Deer’s police chief

There has been considerable discussion recently whether Red Deer should create a city police department, replacing the long-standing contract with the RCMP to provide municipal policing services.

What is often forgotten is that for many years, Red Deer had its own police department.

Its origins went back to 1901, when Red Deer was incorporated as a town. However, for the first decade, it was a very small operation, with only basic equipment.

The situation changed with the big boom that commenced in 1909. Red Deer’s population more than doubled in less than four years.

With the community growing rapidly, the crime rate rose dramatically.

There were only 35 criminal cases in 1910. That jumped to nearly 250 in 1912.

The most serious incident occurred in June 1911, when a drifter shot and nearly killed the police chief during a botched armed robbery.

The police struggled to keep up with the escalation of crime. Additional constables were hired. However, with the low rate of unemployment in the community, it was a challenge to find good men. Those who were hired often lacked proper training.

Discipline in the police department was an ongoing issue. Town council had planned on coming down severely on the police chief for the difficulties with his constables. However, after he very nearly lost his life in the line of duty, it became impossible for them to rebuke the community’s hero.

Fortunately, the chief recovered from his wounds, but the problems with the constables continued. The department hit a real low point on Feb. 2, 1912, when two constables were fired for pulling their revolvers on each other during an argument in a bar.

Several of the better constables quit their jobs, including Deputy Chief Charles Anderson. The town council held special meetings to discuss the escalating public complaints.

Matters came to a head in early May 1913. There was a late-night brawl in a local restaurant. One man was severely injured during his arrest.

Council decided that enough was enough. The councillors forced the police chief’s resignation. He then moved to B.C., where he got a position with the B.C. Provincial Police.

Anderson returned to Red Deer from Calgary and became the new police chief. He got much better control over the department, in part by letting some of the constables go.

He still faced many severe problems. When the great boom finally broke, council laid off some of the constables for budgetary reasons.

With the outbreak of the First World War, other members of the department quit to enlist. Recruitment of replacements was difficult with so many young men continuing to join the military.

In June 1916, Police Chief Anderson himself joined the 187 Battalion and went overseas. However, council decided to appoint only acting police chiefs from within the department until Anderson returned home.

Meanwhile, the local crime rate plunged, particularly after the imposition of Prohibition against the sale and consumption of alcohol. The Red Deer Police also benefited from the establishment of a local detachment of the Alberta Provincial Police after the creation of the latter force in 1917.

The provincial police handled the more serious criminal cases, as well as most of the breaches of the Prohibition laws.

In January 1918, the annual city police report stated that there had been only two arrests made in the preceding year. One involved an inebriated person who was removed from the CPR train. The other was an assault case.

After the war ended, Anderson returned home and was quickly reappointed police chief. Always a popular person, he was warmly greeted by the community. Unfortunately, his health was poor due to his war service.

He slowly recovered. However, the challenges he faced as chief of police were daunting. The economy was shattered by the war.

The City of Red Deer veered towards bankruptcy. Social problems rose in the community. It was a difficult time to be in charge of a police department.

To be continued next week

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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