The History of the Topeka Police Department Motorcycle Unit
By Donald Laird
(The Good Guys: A History of Law Enforcement in Shawnee County, pp 17-36)
Ordinance No. Sixty-two, passed by the City Council of Topeka on February 11, 1858, under Mayor Orrin T. Welch, provided for the first police force in Topeka. “Colonel” W.L. Gordon was appointed City marshal, and his first official duty was to grade Kansas Avenue from the river to First Avenue!
Prior to the 1858 ordinance, which established the first real police force, there were other attempts at law enforcement in the young community. Andreas History of Kansas reported that “Daniel Horne found enough men to form a military company, which he organized and called the Topeka Guards.” Governor Reeder appointed Horne the first constable.
A 1908 photograph of the “City Prison” shows the entrance to this building fronted on Jackson Street instead of on Fifth Street as it does today. The 29 officers in the photo wore large, helmet-like hats, carried night sticks at their sides, and had star-shaped badges about two inches wide pinned over their hearts. The population of the city at this time was 48,000. Six men on the day watch patrolled an average of 19 miles. The prisoners worked on a rock pile, crushing stones for use on the city streets, and early photos often showed the inmates sitting amid their creations. The first motorcycle policemen saw duty in 1909 and because of their noisy machines were quickly given the nicknames “Pop-pop cops.”
The first automobile in the department was an Overland, purchased in 1913. It was kept at the station to answer calls and was regarded as a great improvement for it enabled officers to respond more promptly. Shortly after World War I, the men were placed in cars to patrol the town. The first motorcycle was added to the force at this time.
In 1932 another invention came to be used by the department and, like the automobile, brought great change to police work. The Annual Report of the City of Topeka for the year ending December 31, 1931, was proud to relate:
On January 25, 1932, the City of Topeka installed the 98th police radio system in the United States at a cost of approximately $7,500. The equipment is 50 watt capacity, manufactured by the Western Electric Company and it covers every part of the city and most of the county with good volume. The police radio is a forward step in crime prevention and apprehension, and enables law enforcement officers to act with rapidity and dispatch in protection society from the criminally minded. The efficiency of the radio, since its installation, has often been demonstrated as the average time in answering calls is less than three minutes. In some instances, criminals have been apprehended in the commission of a crime and on two occasions lives have
been saved by prompt response made possible by radio communication. . . .
For the first few years of radio use, however, the dispatcher had to give the calls over the radio “blind,” hoping that the officer in the car had received the message. Car-to-car, and car-to-headquarters messages were not yet possible.
An article in the Topeka Daily Capital for February 1, 1933, tells of the improvement in police department services because of the recently installed radio system. As a result of this improvement, there was a sharp reduction in crimes of all kinds. In 1932 there were 11,864 calls broadcast over the system. Operating expenses for the department overall were $129,951, of which $116,000 was in salaries. Beginning wages for patrolmen were $32 a week.
The department had 59 employees in 1935, and an old photograph shows them standing in front of the now razed Shawnee County courthouse on the northwest corner of Fifth and Van Buren Streets. Ten sedans, four motorcycles, and one three-wheel motorcycle are shown in the photo. For the year ending December 31, particular attention had been directed toward the improvement of the Traffic Division, which was cooperating with the National Safety Council in an effort to reduce the number of traffic fatalities. Four to eight officers were stationed in the business district to eliminate traffic congestion and to regulate parking. Over a hundred 15-minute parking zones had been designated in the business area, and the police were aiding in the enforcement of these time zones.
In the mid 1930’s, a mechanic picked up the Chief each morning at his home, drove him to the station for work, and back home at the end of the day. The police car, of course, has undergone many changes over the years. Officers used to have a rope or wire to pull which engaged the siren drive wheel against the fan belt. This activated the “screamer” as they were then called. For red lights, fingernail polish was used to paint over the regular lens. The motorcycles were the first to be equipped with red lights, and it was necessary to change the batteries at the end of each shift, recharge the depleted ones, and have them ready for the next shift. At first the police cars were all unmarked. Only when the number of cars on the road increased were the patrol cars given special paint markings. One police mechanic, Dean Billings, worked in the garage through the terms of nine chiefs of police and watched the equipment grow from eight vehicles in 1935 to 44 in 1961.
During World War II it was a real struggle to replace worn out vehicles and equipment owned by the city. Local growth, combined with wartime shortages of men and material greatly hampered the city in its fire-fighting strength and drained its normal complement of policemen. According to Chief E.W. Kaul, at least 29 more men were needed to place the city in a position comparable with other cities of approximately the same size. All patrol cars had been driven in excess of 100,000 miles, and at least five new cars and two motorcycles were needed as soon as possible. New radio and office equipment should require large expenditures.
Information and Photos provided by the Topeka, KS Police Department.