At their meeting in Plymouth on March 6, 1677 the Shawomet Proprietors (buyers of the land area now called Somerset), appointed Zaccariah Eddy as constable. His job was to keep folk from illegally cutting the extensive stands of timber. His pay was apparently land in the area.
Over the years, during both the time when Shawomet was part of Swansea and following Somerset’s incorporation in 1790, constables were appointed on an as-needed basis. In 1862, Constable Joseph Gibbs received $24 for the year and was the only appointee.
In succeeding years, one and occasionally two or more people acted as constable and served warrants, with payment of $10.50 to $25. The Warrant Server got $2.50 for serving warrants; the number of warrants is unknown. The Town Report of 1882 is the first to show “Police Service” with a salary/payments figure of $716.70. In 1863, the figure was $841.25 and in 1884, it was $1,021.35. The sudden and consistent rise in expenditures indicates that a full-time constable apparently was appointed and he was supported over succeeding years by part-time constables. The first full-time constable appears to have been John Minnehan, who was also Superintendent of the Almshouse where the indigents of the town were housed.
The Almshouse was located on Read Street in the area of the present day South School. It contained two holding cells in the basement used to hold tramps or hobos overnight. Transients were locked up for the night and awakened at 5:00 a.m. to cut wood, perform chores, and otherwise pay in labor for their breakfast. Then they were pointed out of town.
An example of one of the outstanding police officers of the time was Patrick Donahue who was appointed in 1866, according to town records, as a full-time constable. In addition to his other duties, he patrolled Somerset Village on foot, in all weather, from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. Donahue was called “the Chief’ for years before he actually headed the Department.
The Village at this time was a small but lively coal port with two ironworks in full operation, three or four trains hauling coal out each day, several working industries, and apparently a number of mischief makers. According to the book "Somerset, Massachusetts: Portrait of the American Experience in a New England Town," Donahue established a record by bringing some 27 cases into the local court. One of the first of many feature stories in the Fall River News to deal with Donahue had compared him favorably to the sheriffs of the wild west and ended with the prudent observation that “the Chief never allows anything to stand between him and duty.” Gradually it was apparent that his word was law.
Except for chronic offenders, most of Somerset’s crime around this time was committed by a certain brand of individuals known to the press and public alike as “slick strangers.” These were the real professionals, criminals on the run from one large city to another. They specialized in picking small towns through which they passed for burglary jobs, or using them as hideaways. During this time, a man was charged with the murder of a Boston policeman, and Donahue apprehended this person. A notorious safe cracker from New Jersey was also nabbed by Donahue.
Town records for 1886 indicate that E. Buffington received $17.50 as a part-time constable; John Shea received $2; and Thomas A. Francis received $6 as part-time constable. Patrick Donahue received between $67.50 and $69.75 per month.
In 1887 “Police Service” was $966.10 and “Police Station” costs totaled $300. Pat Donahue was the full-time constable and B.D. Simmons was logged in from time to time under “Services for Police Station.” For the month of March 1887, Simmons collected $29. Evidently, he served as jailer.
The police station was a small building on Main Street, a part of the old Jonathan Bowers house that stood across from the foot of Cherry Street. One section of the building was used as a Fire station, housing a hook and ladder truck, and the jail was next to it. The town paid the estate of John W. Pierce, owner of the property, rent of $25 a year.
The year 1888 brought the first formal report of “Police Service” appearing in the Town Report:
Disturbing the peace: 7
Assault and battery: 2
Fast driving: 1
Evading to pay fare: 1
Refusing to assist officer: 1
Contempt of court: 1
Lodged during the year, a total of 323 tramps. Police Services in 1888 totaled $929.25 (mainly Donahue’s regular monthly pay) and $265.69 for “Police Station.”
Over the years, crackers, blankets and coal were charged to the jail. Old timers say that the transients got a handout of crackers in the evening, before bedding down, to tide them over until morning. Then a lady living close by the jail served them a hot breakfast, for which she was paid $.25 per individual served. After breakfast, the tramps were informed of the quickest way out of town and strongly advised to take it.
In 1890 new offenses appear in town records:
Breaking and entering in the nighttime: 1
Keeping and maintaining a common nuisance: 1
Keeping an unlicensed dog: 1
Total offenses for 1890 was 33.
Also, “Found five stores open during the year; returned 3 lost teams to proper owners; lodged 199 tramps.”
New offenses in 1899 were:
Malicious Mischief: 1
Total of offenses in 1891 was 23.
From 1891 through the early 1900s the cost of “Police Services” dropped. In 1893 Pat Donahue was Superintendent of Streets, at $2,031.91 per annum, and continued his constable duties. P. Lonigan served at the police station. In 1909, the first town owned telephone was installed in the jail.
Chief Donahue’s reputation was firmly established throughout New England when, in 1908, he made a capture that won him national recognition. While the Village Railroad Bridge was under construction, material to be used in the construction was blown up with dynamite. The Chief, along with the police from surrounding communities, joined in the search for the saboteurs.
The stakeout was fruitless until Donahue happened to board a streetcar and came face-to-face with one of the alleged dynamiters. A scuffle ensued, a revolver clattered to the floor, but the well-muscled and determined chief had it kicked aside and his man firmly pinned down before a shot could be fired. The gun alleged to have been taken that day is on display at the Somerset Historical Society on High Street.
Beginning in 1913, Donahue signed report as Chief of Police. He served on the police force until 1918 when George A. Staples headed the Department. Part-time constables were William Thompson (who became full-time in 1919); Issac Wilson, and William Ashton.
In 1919, the town bought its first traffic signal known as a “Silent Policeman,” for $7.50. Charles Sullivan received $7.50 to maintain it. Also in 1919 the Somerset Police became motorized with the purchase of a motorcycle and sidecar for $500. Most roads were not much more than dirt paths.
Through 1925, Staples and Thompson were the only full-time officers, earning $1,540. The records are not clear, but is appears Thompson became Chief in 1927. Assisting officers were Wilson, Ashton, J. William Nolan, Frank Hathaway, Herbert Bridge, and Arthur Plant. During this period, another motorcycle was purchased.
In 1936, automobiles were acquired at a cost of $1,500. In 1939, a new police car was bought from Gell Motor Sales for $472.29, but the Town Property Inventory remained at $1,500.
In 1941, Thompson earned $2,120; Nolan $2,040, Ashton $962.50 and Thomas E. Ducharme $720. During 1942 the first police car radio was purchased for $260, but with the start of the war, it was never used.
In 1945 J. William Nolan became Police Chief of a five-man department that now also included Thompson, Ducharme, Cornelius V. Lynch, and John 0. Soares. The yearly report shows crimes listed by categories:
Violation of auto law: 24
Crimes against the person: 1
Crimes against property: 30
Crimes against public order: 13
In 1946, a new car was added and the cruisers were equipped with radios with a call sign of WRKM.
John O. Soares became Chief in 1958 and by 1959 the Department had grown to ten full-time officers. The Department budget was $41,396.47, there were 172 crimes, made 106 arrests and investigated 7001 complaints. Also in that year the Department became a 24 hour-a-day operation. Chief Soares commanded the 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. shift, Deputy Chief Lynch commanded the 5 p.m. - 1 a.m. shift and Lt. Michael Sypko handled the 1 a.m. - 9 a.m. watch.
Constables assisted the regular officers at $.50 per hour and in 1960 Peter J. Kerrigan, Alfred Medeiros and Herbert E. Menezes were appointed full-time officers at $66 per week.
In 1965, the Department moved from its offices in the Town Office Building to a new Police/Fire Station. By 1969, the Department had grown to 14 men including Chief Soares, Deputy Chief Lynch, Capt. Sypko, Lt. Roland Rivard, Sergeants James McIntyre, Wayne Snell and Alfred Medeiros. 1970s Uniform ChangeThe patrol force consisted of Kerrigan, Menezes, Bobbie Sterne, Roy Stout, Timothy Thompson, Lawrence Veloza, and Gerald Simons. William F. Ready, a retired State Police Captain, succeeded Chief Soares as Chief of Police and in 1982, Peter Kerrigan was named Chief. He served until 1991 when James M. Smith was appointed Chief of Police.
By the year 2000, the Department consisted on 32 full-time officers, six full-time dispatchers, a records clerk and custodian. In addition, there were 16 part-time Reserve Officers and five part-time dispatchers. The Department budget had grown to $1.8 million, there were over 18,000 calls for service, 2,336 crimes, and 664 arrests.
***This article was prepared by Lt. Thomas Mello (Ret.) with the assistance of James Bradbury, curator of the Somerset Historical Society. We also want to thank Virginia Jackson of the Spectator***