Before Dickinson was organized as a town in 1899, police protection was handled by the county until the residents voted to formalize their village. At that point, Robert Craig became the first, and only, marshal of Dickinson. He and other elected officials served only until the next year, when the voters approved changing the status of Dickinson to a “city”. When this occurred, Mayor Dan Manning appointed J.E. McCoul as the first chief of police of Dickinson.
While early police department information is sketchy, some stories have been repeated throughout the generations. One of these comes from a local attorney, Robert Baird (also a former police commissioner). He said that in the early days, much of the street cleaning was done by prisoners who were brought out during the day in chain gangs to do the work. The department itself consisted of usually 2-3 men. Traffic control was also minimal, and apparently there was little call for it, with the exception of a few signs. One of these was a post in the middle of the intersection at Sims and First Street that reminded drivers that the vehicle to the right had the right-of-way. In the 1930s, Chief George Nolan moved the police department into the then-new city hall, which was located at 25 First Avenue West. Today, the building houses the Dickinson Fire Department. The police and fire departments shared the building for nearly 50 years. In the building, the police department had three cells and one room. It wasn’t until 1982 when construction of the new (and current) combined Law Enforcement Center was complete and the two departments were separate. Patrol procedures became more refined by the 1940s. The department got its first patrol cars, but still lacked a dispatcher. Instead, a red light was placed atop the old Heaton Lumber Company office building on the southwest corner of Villard and Third Avenue West (the current Sax Motor location). The light was operated by the telephone operators. When they received a call from someone needing the police, they would turn on the red light and the officer would then check with the operator to see what the problem was. Henry Weber recalls, “if you got too far off Villard, you couldn’t see it, so you had to hang around Villard.” Most of the police activity of the early years was done similar to that of which is done today; family fights, dog calls, and accidents.
By the 1940s, the shift schedule was well worked out. The chief worked the day, one officer worked 3 PM – 11 PM and one officer worked from 11 PM -7 AM. Other officers helped from 7 PM – 3 AM. One of these officers was the south side officer. This person had his own little “precinct house”; a tiny square building that sat at the corner of Broadway and Highway 22. The south officer covered only the south side and had his own red light to watch for when there were calls.
In the 1950s, more officers were added to the shifts and the department also got a radio system for the cars. Dispatchers were also hired to man this new set-up and many of the early dispatchers were college students. On some occasions, radio traffic “skipped” to Roswell, New Mexico instead of Bismarck. Officers during this time were also limited to driving only 30-35 miles on the squad car per shift. Training was very informal during this time. Officers were basically given a uniform, a gun, and a badge and told when they would work. A typical pay check for a 1950s Dickinson Police Officer was $160 a month.
Also in the 1950’s, the ambulance service was staffed by off-duty policemen from the Dickinson PD. In total, 10 officers served on the ambulance service for nearly 20 years. The drivers included Duane Wolf, Henry Weber, Frank Riesinger, Clarence Kolling, Tom Thompson, Jim Rice, George Grossman, Thomas Nass, Darrel Haag, and Pat Lynch. The officers took turns on staffing the ambulance with 2-man crews. All of the drivers were advanced first aid instructors, though they were commonly met on-scene by a doctor. In the late 1970’s, the city commission debated whether or not to privatize the ambulance service. After some debate, it was decided that the city would no longer operate the service. In 1982, the Dickinson Ambulance Service was formed, transferring the ambulance duties from the police department to a private company. Frank Riesinger recalls that in the 18 years of driving the ambulance, the entire staff never had a single patient die on them enroute to the hospital.
By the 1960s, the department was undergoing some major changes. Basic training started for officers. In 1966, the police department took over the entire ground floor of the 1930 city hall building (the current downtown fire hall). After having outgrown the single room in the back of the building, some of the police offices had been placed upstairs; these included the chief’s office, the detective, and the dispatcher.
The increased oil activity in southwest North Dakota in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought new challenges to the Dickinson Police Department. The population of Dickinson swelled to nearly 23,000 people. The staffing level of the department peaked at an all-time high of 45 officers. Officers of this era remember non-stop calls for service. Many would come to work 3 calls “stacked”, or waiting.
In the late 1980s, Chief Paul Bazzano introduced “Community Oriented Policing” to the Dickinson Police Department. This brand of policing is still being used by the department today. During this time, the department encouraged the community to get involved with crime prevention. National Night Out was introduced. Crimestoppers was formed. Neighborhood Watch beats were being established city-wide. In the early 1990s, a bike patrol unit was formed to patrol the city in a different fashion. An Adopt-a-Cop program was developed, which placed a street officer at a school as “their” officer.
In early 2000 and after the events of 9-11-01, the department established a regional tactical unit. The team is still operational today and continues to advance and adapt with today’s ever changing police climate.The future of the Dickinson Police Department is holding true and strong. Our heritage and history encompasses a philosophy of respect, integrity, service, and courage and providing the citizens with a strong commitment to a community partnership.
Portions of this history blog are courtesy of the “Centennial Roundup 1882-1982” by Janell Cole and Kurt Schweigert.