Compiled & Edited By Retired Officer Paul Chalifour
In order to understand the emergence and subsequent workings of today’s police department one must look back not only to the early colonial history of the town but to the medieval history of England.
Although the area now known as Wilmington was settled in the early 1660s, it was not until 1730 that it was incorporated into its own geographical and political entity. Brought to the colonies with the early settlers were many forms of English government and law.
One such institution was the office of constable. Dating from the time of the Norman invasion in 1066, the post was originally a military title of great importance. Derived from the Latin comes stabuli, meaning “count of the stable”, the position slowly evolved into that of a peace officer with the office surviving for centuries both in England and later in America.
The constable, chosen or elected by the townspeople and answerable to the selectmen, would be charged with a variety of duties. He was to post all town notices and warrants, maintain order at town meetings, oversee elections, keep the peace within the town, collect taxes, and occasionally take into custody; robbers, vagrants, drunkards, disturbers of the peace, and other criminals. The office of constable served many towns well, from early colonial days through the late 19th century.
It was, however, events in London, England that really paved the way for actual “police departments” to become a reality in this country. Events that, as years passed, brought about the demise of the constable as the sole and chief law enforcer in the town.
First, there were policing pioneers and half-brothers John and Henry Fielding who were instrumental in establishing the precursor to the modern, municipal police department. During the mid to late 1700s, London and its surrounding environs were being plagued by highway robbers and murderers. One of the innovations introduced and employed by the Fieldings were groups of parish constables who would relentlessly pursue gangs of robbers until they were caught and punished. These pursuers became known as the “Bow Street Runners” because the post of magistrate held by the Fieldings was located on Bow Street in Westminster. No longer could an individual constable hope to keep law and order over the growing population. These groups or constabularies, established in a paramilitary fashion, would foreshadow the make-up of the first city and town police departments of this country.
The Fieldings also established constable manned horse patrols on the turnpikes and highways in and around London. They were thwarted, however, in their attempts to establish a large, full-time, paid police force. The public and government were ever wary that the force would be too militaristic and infringe too much on personal freedom.
One of the last acts by John Fielding in this venture came in 1772 when he proposed to the House of Commons that all parish constables and night watchmen be put under the control of the Senior Magistrate of Westminster. However, it failed to gain support. Instead, it took the passage of nearly fifty years and continued internal and external strife brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the revolt in America, and war on the European continent to show the need for an organized police force.
The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, introduced by Sir Robert Peel, established the guidelines and structure of the first “true” uniformed police department, the London Metropolitan Police. Its successes over the next thirty years led many municipalities in this country to incorporate, wholeheartedly, its ideas and styles. By the 1860s, most large and medium sized cities in this country had some type of police department and almost all sported the uniform and distinctive “Bobby” helmet of their English predecessor. Even small towns began to appoint police officers and form police departments.
In 1872, Wilmington became one of those towns when it appointed its first special police officer. However, a full-fledged police department did not emerge overnight. More than twenty years passed before Wilmington named its first police chief. Nearly another thirty years passed before Wilmington actually formed what can really be considered a true police department with the adoption, by the Board of Selectmen in 1922, of the Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Police Department. A document, although amended, that is still in use today. However, the chief remained the only full time, regular officer.
In 1930, the first of many permanent officers were appointed, though special officers continued to be relied on for many years. Even though these changes were coming about, the office of constable remained quite important with many men serving simultaneously in that elected position, in addition to the appointed position of police chief. However, the duties of the town constable began to gradually diminish as the police chief’s and police department’s duties steadily increased.
Today the position of constable still exists, although the duties consist primarily of posting warrants for upcoming elections and town meetings.
In contrast, the Wilmington Police Department has grown substantially to become a modern, efficient law enforcement agency providing much needed services to both residents and visitors alike. This written and photographic history spans from 1730 to the present day and focuses on major dates and events involving the town’s constables, police chiefs, and police officers. Presented in chronological order, it shows a flowing history of the Wilmington Police Department’s growth and development.