The Early Years
The South Milwaukee Police Department, like all others, grew from a desire by local inhabitants to set standards of conduct and mediate conflict between neighbors. This basic purpose is as true today as it was in 1835 when the first European settlers arrived in the area originally known as the Lake Township. The sale of lands in the southeast portion of the Lake Township, soon to be called Oak Creek, began in 1838, and the first families of South Milwaukee, including Joseph Dibley, Luther Rawson, Joel Higgins, Quincy Carpenter and Thomas Fowle, began a settlement near the shores of Lake Michigan.
While no formal police force existed at that time, even the earliest settlers felt the need to have order and in 1842, at the first town gathering, settlers elected leaders of their new government. At that same meeting, settlers voted to give Luther Rawson power to use “all necessary means” to keep dogs from disturbing future meetings at the school house and he was elected as the township’s “dog whipper.” That meeting also resulted in John J. Mason being elected as the Constable and Collector.
It wasn’t until 1892 that the settlement in the northeast portion of the Oak Creek Township became incorporated as the Village of South Milwaukee. At that time, the only law enforcement officers were the village marshal, John Cullen and the constable, A.J. DeFoy. Their responsibilities were still fairly straightforward, with the duties comprised mainly of punishing and suppressing drunkenness, checking for dog licenses and ensuring that horses were not allowed to damage the wooden sidewalks.
Policing in a Growing Community
In 1897, the first common council of the newly designated City of South Milwaukee agreed to hire police on a part time basis and the law enforcement officers worked out of a garage near 12th Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue. This remained their home until 1929, when a combined City Hall, Police, and Fire Station was built at 2005 10th Avenue.
Between 1900 and 1950, South Milwaukee grew from a population of 3,392 to 12,855. While that growth was impressive and was driven in part by industry such as Bucyrus-Erie, it paled in comparison to the growth experienced between 1950 and 1960, when the population swelled to 20,307, a 58% increase. That expansion, at least partially the consequence of the post WWII “baby boom,” required a larger and more responsive police force. By the middle of the 20th Century, the South Milwaukee Police Department was comprised of a couple dozen fulltime officers and was well-appointed with the latest in police equipment, including squad cars, motorcycles, radios and firearms. During that period, phone service became widespread and rapid response to calls became the expectation. That era in policing also emphasized training and professionalism, and law enforcement officers began to undergo formal education prior to joining the force.
The Modern Era
During the last several decades, the South Milwaukee Police Department underwent additional change as it adjusted to new expectations of the community, which wanted a closer connection to its police force. In 1989, officers began to teach the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in the schools and in 1991 the department began its first bicycle patrols. New tools were also integrated into the police profession, including bullet resistant vests, O.C. spray, and more recently, electronic control devises (tasers).
Modern policing requires a balance between the old notions of law and order and the newer concepts that emphasize the importance of police-community partnerships in maintaining order. Our men and women are better trained and better equipped than at any time in our history, yet the challenges they face are more diverse and complicated than ever before. They need to act in a decisive and assertive manner to protect life and property, but even more often they must act as counselor, mediator, problem-solver and therapist during a wide array situations.
As society continues to move forward and as the community of South Milwaukee continues to evolve, law enforcement will also change, but one thing is constant. Public safety will always be a collaborative effort between the community and the law enforcement professionals who are sworn to serve them. There will continually be new and emerging issues that threaten our sense of peace and security, yet we are confident that our shared goals and commitment to working in partnership with the community will allow us to overcome those obstacles and carry on South Milwaukee’s tradition of a “proud past and promising future.”