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History of Milwaukee Police Department

Milwaukee County Wisconsin Genealogy

Other articles of Interest

Sgt. William B. Sizer Diaries-Diaries of a man who served on the force in the late 1800s early 1900s.

Milwaukee Police Officers Killed while in Service

Milwaukee Police Band

Milwaukee's Eight Chiefs of Police

Source: Milwaukee Journal April 2, 1933

The Department, Organized in 1855, Was Free From Political Control in 1885, and Has Had Only Two Heads in 45 Years

A search for half a dozen photographs that has been going on in this city for five years has ended.

It was carried on by the police and the pictures which Chief of Police J.G. Laubenheimer wanted were those of the men who have headed the police department since it was organized in 1855. Photographs of all chiefs were found, enlarged, framed and now adorn the walls of the chief's office in the safety building. The portrait of William Beck-the city's first chief and one of the most colorful of early policemen-was the last to be located after a long hunt.

Information about the men who have protected the city against crime since before the Civil war also was dug up and reveals interesting details of their lives. Here is a list of chiefs since the department's organization. (their pictures are to the left)

1855-1862 William Beck
[1861-1862 Col. W.J. Johnston (missing from this article/severed only 6 mon.)]
1862-1863 H.L. Page
1863-1878 William Beck
1878-1881 Daniel Kennedy
1880-1882 William Beck
1882-1884 Robert Wasson
1884-1885 Lemuel Ellsworth
1885-1888 Florian J. Ries
1888-1921 J.T. Janssen
1921- J.G. Laubenheimer
See images of Police Chiefs Of Milwaukee County at the Linking Your Past Image site.

In the 30 years from 1855 to 1885, during which the police department was under the old political spoils system chiefs of police were changed seven times. Some served only fro a year or two and were then dismissed as a new administration came in. Since 1885, however, when the police department was divorced from political influences, there have been only three chiefs, the last two serving over a period of 45 years. Chief Janssen held office for 33 years. Mayers came and went during his term, but political changes did not affect him. Chief Laubenheimer, who succeeded Janssen when his health failed, has served 12 years and is probably good for many years to come.

Before 1855, the city depended on town marshals, assisted by constables to preserve order. One of the most widely known of the early marshals was Joseph Chaunier, who was killed in 1849, when he attempted to stop a runaway horse.

The men who served as police chiefs before 1885, when the present law governing the board of fire and police commissioners was created, owned their jobs to politics and were never sure when their terms would end. The mayor appointed the chief of police and told him who he should have for sub-ordinates. Usually the best vote getters were given preference on the force and when it happened that the chief and his men backed the wrong candidates, it followed that they were dismissed on the day the new administration took office.

The result was that the department most of the time was in a state of disorganization. Ability counted for little. As for the chiefs, they were under constant fire of the party out of power. Every act of the police was closely scrutinized. The chief not only had to battle crooks and law breakers, but much of his time was spent fighting politicians.

Under the old spoils system the police department was quite a political power. Policemen were always close to the voters and under the political system in vogue were supposed to be working for the interests of their mayor. Some of the policemen were better politicians than peace officers. Discipline was lax. It was desirable for a policeman to stay on friendly terms with politicians.

That is why police chiefs were changes so often. The record of William Beck illustrates the case. He was a good officer and made quite a record, yet three times he was not reappointed when new mayors came in. Between 1855 and 1885 he was three times appointed chief, but during those 32 years he was dropped just as many times for political reasons. Some of the early chiefs were able to hold office only for a short term and one of them, a man named Johnson, held out less than one year.

By 1885, politics had so disrupted the fire and police departments of the city that citizens became disgusted and started a movement to divorce the departments from politics. Jerome R. Brigham, prominent attorney, led the movement and wrote a bill creating the board as it is operated today. The bill that was passed by the legislature stripped the mayor of power to appoint and dismiss chiefs of the fire and police departments. The new law created a non-political board of fire and police commissioners to be named by the mayor and confirmed by the common council. In case of a vacancy the board could name a chief for either department, the chiefs in turn to be allowed to select their immediate assistants. The board was empowered to conduct examinations for policemen and firemen. Civil service was to control the department, and politics was to be tabued.

The law has been in effect ever since and from time to time has been strengthened. As it stands today the police chief has complete control over his department and is empowered to appoint his inspector, deputy inspector. captain of detectives and captains of police. He also names his detectives, basing appointments on a merit system. The Milwaukee law is regarded as the model police law of the country and many of its provisions have been copied in other cities. However, nowhere else is the chief given such full power over his department and nowhere is the department so free from politics as here. In some cities the commission has absorbed many of the powers here vested in the chief.

The first board of commissioners, in 1885, was made up of Thomas Shea, Gen. F.C. Winkler, Jacob Knoernschild and Jerome R. Brigham, all leading men who took great interest in public affairs. W.W. Wight, prominent attorney, was one of the first secretaries. Among other prominent men who served on the commission in the early years were John P. Murphy , Otto H. Falk, E.L. Philipp, William G. Thwaites, John L. Burnham, J.O. Hansen, Henry Fuldner, Louis Kindling and Sherman Brown. From the day the commission began to function, politics disappeared.

During the years that David S. Rose was mayor several attempts were made to have the law changed so as to place greater power in the commission and less with the chief. These changes were strongly opposed by the late Chief Janssen and for a number of years he had to appear at each session of the legislature to oppose changes proposed by politicians. Attempts to weaken the commission law frequently have been made, but always defeated by Chief Laubenheimer. Friends of a non-political police department have been alert and from time to time have improved the law with new amendments. The legislature has always been friendly to the local department and has never failed to keep the department out of politics when hostile bills were offered.

The present board is composed of Joseph C. Stein, John Luer, Edward Murray, Max Grass, and John M. Bauachowicz, all appointees of Mayor Hoan. Milwaukee's first chief of police, William Beck, was an adventurous character and a natural born policeman. Born in Germany in 1823, he came to this country with his parents in 1830 and assisted his father, a florist, in New York and later here, when his parents came west in 1844. Young Beck left the city in 1847, returned to New York, went to Mexico, and then joined the gold rush to California in 1848. He was shipwrecked on his way, later captured by Indians, while mining gold, and rescued. After a trip through the south seas he returned to Milwaukee in 1851, served a term in the legislature and then was a deputy under Sheriff H.L. Page. Beck soon made a reputation as a good officer and when the police department was organized in 1855 he became the first chief. He retired in 1862, but a year later was reappointed chief and served until 1878. In 1880 he became chief for the third time and served two more years.

Beck was a colorful police officer. The story is told of how two burglars raided Milwaukee in the early days. Beck suspected two strangers at a hotel and hid under the men's bed. When they returned from one of the raids and while they were dividing their loot and joking about the rube police, Beck came out of his hiding place and with two six-shooters covered his prisoners.

In 1861 occurred the lynching of Marshall Clark, a negro, for the fatal shooting of Darby Carney in the third ward. Beck tried to defend the negro against the mob organized by Carney's friends, but was brushed aside and the negro was hanged to the beam of a pile driver. It was the only lynching Milwaukee ever had.

During Beck's many years as chief he was frequently the object of sharp political controversies. But he loved a fight and usually took care of his interests.

After Becks's first retirement, in 1862, he was succeeded by H.L. Page, which had given Beck his first political appointment as deputy sheriff. Page was a native of New York state and came here in 1844. He was a dry goods merchant and after his retirement served as under sheriff, then sheriff and later as a detective. He made an efficient record and in 1859 became mayor. He served as chief of police from 1862 to 1863 and died in Germany in 1873.

Beck was now recalled as chief and served 15 years to 1878, when he was succeeded by Daniel Kennedy, a native of Killarney, Ireland, who had lived here since 1844 and had been an active Democrat. He had served as inspector of the house of correction and later was the storm center of a row between Mayor John Black, who had appointed him, and Thomas H. Brown, who discharged Kennedy while he was acting mayor in the absence of Black who promptly reinstated Kennedy when he returned. In the next administration Kennedy was dropped and Beck was again put in the saddle and served two more years.

From 1882 to 1885 the city had two chiefs. Robert Wasson held the position two years. It was he who brought Oscar Kleinsteuber back to Milwaukee and appointed him a patrolman because he had no authority to name an electrician for the police department. Wasson ordered Kleinsteuber to build an alarm system for the police and the latter has been at this work ever since. Milwaukee's alarm system today is rated as one of the best in the country.

Lemual (sic) Ellsworth served as chief for less than a year. He had been a ship-builder, a member of the legislature and county treasurer and was prominent in Masonic circles.

It was during the term of Florian J. Ries from 1885 to 1888 that the board of fire and police commissioners began to function. Ries had a stormy career as chief and was the target of much criticism. He had a good Civil war record and, besides serving in the legislature, held other political positions.

It was when John T. Janssen became chief of police on Oct. 28, 1888, that politics was routed out of the department completely and that the completely and that the commission law became operative 100 percent. Janssen had been a member of the department in various capacities since 1877 and had become known as a fearless officer and a strict disciplinarian.

Janssen was a native of Germany where he was born in 1855. He came here 1861, later became a machinist and, at 22, joined the police force. Those were the days when there was no patrol wagon in the city and the chief later often related how he used to arrest drunks and take them to the station in a wheelbarrow. While Janssen was still doing various duties as a policeman, he several times encountered politics and finally resigned.

When Chief Ries retired Janssen was appointed chief and held the office until he was stricken at the desk on May 5, 1920. After a year of sick leave he retired may 5, 1921, having made a splendid record as a policeman in the 33 years that he was chief. He died Nov. 10, 1924.

Upon the retirement of Janssen, Jacob G. Laubenheimer took charge of the department, and now holds the office. The present chief is a native of the city, having been born near Sherman and Sixth sts. On May 19, 1874. He was educated in the Tenth district school and later took a business college course and became an expert stenographer.

After working for the Wisconsin Telephone Co. and H. Mooers Co. for a time, he joined the police department Feb. 1, 1893, as an assistant to the secretary. He was not yet 19 when he decided on a police career, following the footsteps of his father, who spent his life in the local department.

After six years in the secretary's office young Laubenheimer was put on a beat by Janssen and later was made a detective. Janssen had predicted that some day Laubenheimer would be chief and the prophecy came true.


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