History of the Rochester Police Department

A History of the Rochester, NY Police Department

The earliest beginnings of the Rochester Police Department (RPD) and its motto "Serving with PRIDE - Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Dedication, Excellence" in the City of Rochester, NY, can be traced to March 21, 1817, when Colonel Nathaniel Rochester founded this growing mill town carved from the forests of western New York along the Genesee River, which became the Early Rochester Police OfficersVillage of Rochesterville. The charter of this new village allowed for the hiring of a constable and formation of the first night watch, which marked the establishment of the RPD. A book written by William F. Peck tells the story of the History of the Police Department of Rochester, N.Y. from the Earliest Times to May 1, 1903. As Peck recounts "It finally dawned upon the inhabitants that it might be well to have some additional guardians, and then they remembered that their charter had alluded to something of that kind. At a meeting held December 28, 1819, it was voted "that a sum of eighty dollars be raised by tax to defray the expense of maintaining a village night watch, which had been appointed on the 10th inst., and to be continued so long as the said money raised will admit." That fixes the date of birth of the police department of the city of Rochester, for that night watch was the predecessor of the patrolmen of to-day..." Peck continues "Who that original night watch was may never be known; his name, unfortunately, is lost in oblivion, for it does not appear in the manuscript records..."

In "Rochester History," City Historian Blake McKelvey  edited A History of the Police of Rochester, New York in October, 1963, and writes: "However one views the police force, no other branch of the public service is charged with more onerous tasks or placed more constantly under critical scrutiny."  McKelvey begins "In Rochester as elsewhere the first police officers were night watchmen who volunteered for the job. Responsible citizens formed a citizens' patrol and took turns in a nightly vigil..." Stimulated by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and eventual western railroad expansion, Rochesterville continued to grow into a major manufacturing center. In 1826, McKelvey writes, "the village engaged two watchmen, one for the east and one for the west side." In 1834, Rochesterville was incorporated as the City of Rochester and responsibilities of the three night watchmen expanded to include lighting of street lamps and curbing public nuisances as set forth in the ordinances. The appointment of Newton Rose  as first Captain of the Watch in 1836 marked the first effort to secure administrative unity. 

Rochester's expanding borders and increasing complexity prompted a reorganization of the watch and appointment of a paid police chief in 1853. With a population over 40,000, the City paid its first chief, Chief Addy W. Van Slyck (1853), $900 a year and appropriated $600 for each of his 20 officers. In 1861, Mayor John C. Nash took another step forward when, after a visit to NYC, he ordered all the men to provide themselves with blue uniforms and caps, and to wear them at all times when in the public streets. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, constables and night watchmen were reorganized into a "Metropolitan Police" Bureau. In 1871, the City Charter was amended to classify the policemen and fix their salaries, and a new category of detective was created in 1873. Chief Alexander McLean (1873-1885) created the rank of lieutenant and named four, one for each of the newly established precincts. A Policeman's Benevolent Association, organized in 1875, assured each man's widow a burial fund and modest pension of $20 a month until she remarried. On July 3, 1876, Officer Louis Gomenginger became Rochester's first police officer to give his life in a gun battle. 

In 1886, Police Chief Joseph Cleary (1885-1905), after a visit to Chicago to examine its alarm telegraph, persuaded the commissioners and the council to install one at Rochester. When 30 signal boxes were in place by the middle of 1886, the police alarm system was described as the most efficient in New York State. The Department also acquired a patrol wagon and equipped it with stretchers for emergence cases. A police pension fund was established in 1887. A police headquarters, constructed of red brick with stone trim, was built on Exchange Street across from the County jail in June 1895. A new and improved telegraph alarm system was implemented by Superintendent Miller, which allowed for direct telephone communication from each of the 56 street boxes with police headquarters, precinct stations and the fire department. Rochester was the first city in the United States to have this central energy telephone feature applied to the police telegraph system. The Department now had two patrol wagons and an ambulance, which it kept in a barn behind headquarters. A small police bicycle squad, organized to check speeders, was created in the summer of 1893. 

In 1895, the White Charter Law abolished the police commission and linked police and fire services in a department of public safety under a single commissioner appointed by the mayor. The City's first commissioner, James G. Cutler, introduced the precinct system and with Chief Cleary, named five captains and five lieutenants, doubling the supervisory staff. The new plan also provided for 20 sergeants and eight detective sergeants. Police officers were initially hired through political appointment until New York State enacted its Civil Service Law in 1900, and the professionalism of police service increased. Police officers were now selected and promoted through competitive civil service examination, as well as receiving job security and retirement benefits for their service.

The Bertillon System of Crime Identification was introduced in 1903, which applied Anthropometry - The first scientific study of measurements and proportions of the human body used by detectives to assist in the identification of criminals. Prior to that, criminals could only be identified by name or photograph. A detail of mounted police, organized in 1903, was expanded when it proved efficient to control crowds. In 1904, former Commissioner Cutler, now Mayor James G. Cutler, launched a training program to develop the skills of all police officers and to improve discipline, and issued an order banning smoking and drinking by police while on duty.

A formal recruiting process began in 1904. A patrolman's club, formed in 1904, took the name Locust Club honoring the tree from which the billy clubs had traditionally been made. In 1905, Chief Cleary retired with the respect and gratitude of many citizens after serving 38 years on the force, 20 as chief. Chief John C. Hayden (1905-1908), head of the detective bureau since 1887, announced the formation of a traffic squad to check the mounting toll of accidents in the streets and stationed officers at busy Main Street intersections at East Avenue and St. Paul, State and Fitzhugh streets. The Locust Club held its first annual Policemen's Ball in 1906, which became a symbol of high morale.

In 1908, Mayor Edgerton named Chief Joseph M. Quigley (1909-1927) as police chief and a new aid to identification was adopted in 1909, when fingerprints were first recorded locally, supplementing the Bertillon measurements. Rochester took the lead in installing a newly developed telephone system in 1910, which placed telephone boxes at 10 prominent street corners and enabled patrolmen to promptly give and receive messages, a system that quickly attracted imitation elsewhere. An ordinance directing the police to supervise dance halls and other amusement centers prompted the appointment in 1913 of Rochester's first policewoman, Officer Nellie L. McElroy, the first policewoman in NYS and only the tenth policewoman in the United States. As the number of automobiles owned in the City increased, the traffic squad had to be equipped with motorcycles in 1913, displacing bicycles. In 1919, Chief Quigley urged the adoption of standardized procedures for the registration and identification of automobiles as the best means to check car thefts. Another of Chief Quigley's improvements, adopted in 1920, was the traffic ticket, which relieved police officers of having to accompany each offender to court. In 1922, the first traffic lights were installed at busy Downtown corners.

Chief Andrew J. Kavanaugh (1927-1934) instituted a modern bureau of criminal identification in 1930. Radio equipment was installed in patrol cars in 1931. Chief Henry T. Copenhagen (1934-1949) reorganized the detective bureau in 1946 that brought all plainclothesmen from the seven precinct stations back under one management at the central headquarters. Chief Copenhagen also assigned seven policemen to a new youth bureau and placed them under Sergeant Henry Jensen, a police officer who sponsored and directed a scout troop for the past 10 years. In 1947, Officer Charles Price was hired as the Department's first African American police officer. In 1949, Public Safety Commissioner Brady went to Washington, DC, to attend the graduation ceremonies at the FBI's National Academy, at which now Captain Jensen of Rochester was one of 55 graduates, and conferred with J. Edgar Hoover on the feasibility of developing a police academy in Rochester. Commissioner Kenneth C. Townson had the honor of opening the new academy in 1951. Commissioner Townson and Chief Herbert Killip (1950-1953) equipped all patrol cars with two-way FM units to maintain direct contact with a new radio tower erected for the police at Cobbs Hill and traffic radar detection units were acquired in 1952.

Chief William A. Winfield (1954-1962) established a public relations division to promote safety education and with Commissioner Townson, transformed the police academy into a Police and Fire Academy, which opened in new quarters in 1954. Chief Winfield and Commissioner James F. Butler  increased the number of dogs in the City's canine division, which was first introduced in 1960. Chief William M. Lombard (1963-1970), Deputy Chief Jensen and Public Safety Commissioner  Donald J. Corbett placed increased emphasis on police training and directed all members of the force to upgrade the performance of their duties by enrolling for a 40-hour training course at the police academy. Chief Lombard also devised a roadblock system designed to seal off all possible exits on the first report of a major crime within the City, established a violent-crime squad and technical services division, and added a night detail to the youth squad.

Today, the RPD serves a community of over 210,500 people within a total geographical area of 37.1 square miles. City of Rochester Chief of Police La'Ron D. Singletary  leads an agency of 850 sworn and non-sworn employees dedicated to the fair and impartial enforcement of laws, while improving the quality of life for the City and citizens of Rochester.

The RPD is recognized in New York State and across the nation as a leading law enforcement agency. Department members are proud of the high quality of service they provide, along with a continuous pursuit of policing excellence. *2019 marked the RPD's 200th Anniversary and commencement of its year-long Bicentennial celebration. Many officers wore commemorative Rochester Police 1819-2019 uniform badges for this momentous occasion minted from Chief Cleary's original badge dating from 1866.*Fifteen Rochester Police Officers have given their lives in the service and protection of the City of Rochester, most recently on September 4, 2014, when Officer Daryl Pierson was fatally shot in the line of duty. A Fallen Officer Tribute Poster was illustrated by local artist Carol Culhane in 2019 to honor the legacy of our fallen heroes. Ms. Culhane's father, Officer Harvey Kusse,  served in the RPD from 1943-1971. 

The RPD has an honorable history and the Rochester Police Department Blue Book - 1911 continued the Department's story from Peck's above-referenced book. Blue Books were also published in 1929 and 1969. The 2019 Bicentennial Committee was very proud to continue this historical tradition with the publishing of a 496-page, hardcover, coffee table-style RPD Blue Book with generous support from the Rochester Police Foundation.

Rochester's Police Chiefs  

  • Addy W. Van Slyck, 1853
  • George I. Marsh, 1854
  • Samuel N. Sherman, 1855
  • Elisha J. Keeney, 1856 and 1859
  • W.D. Oviatt, 1857
  • Seth Simmons, 1858
  • Matthew G. Warner, 1860
  • William Charles, 1861
  • William Mudgett, 1862-1863
  • Robert R. Harris, 1864
  • Samuel M. Sherman, 1865-1873
  • Alexander McLean, 1873-1885
  • Joseph P. Cleary, 1885-1905
  • John C. Hayden, 1905-1908
  • Joseph M. Quigley, 1909-1927
  • Andrew J. Kavanaugh, 1927-1934
  • Henry T. Copenhagen, 1934-1949
  • T. Herbert Killip, 1950-1953
  • William A. Winfield, 1954-1962
  • William F. Lombard, 1963-1970
  • John A. Mastrella, 1970-1972
  • James J. Cavoti, 1972-1973
  • Joseph E. Battaglia, 1973-1974
  • Thomas F. Hastings, 1974-1981
  • Delmar E. Leach, 1981-1985
  • Gordon F. Urlacher, 1985-1991
  • Roy A. Irving, 1991-1993
  • Thomas L. Conroy, 1994 (Interim)
  • Robert S. Warshaw, 1994-1998
  • Robert J. Duffy, 1998-2005
  • Cedric L. Alexander, 2005 (Interim)
  • Timothy C. Hickey, 2006 (Interim)
  • David T. Moore, 2006-2010
  • James M. Sheppard, 2010-2013
  • Michael L. Ciminelli, 2013-2018
  • Mark L. Simmons, 2018-2019 (Interim)
  • La'Ron D. Singletary, 2019-Present

Rochester Police Department Line of Duty Deaths  

  • Patrolman Louis Gomenginger - July 3, 1876, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman William P. O'Neil - December 31, 1888, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman Charles E. Twitchell - August 10, 1910, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman Frank Ford - May 29, 1912, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman James Upton - March 19, 1919, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman John Mallet - June 22, 1931, Struck by Vehicle
  • Detective Victor Woodhead - November 17, 1932, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman James T. Volz - September 15, 1942, Struck by Vehicle
  • Patrolman Harold V. Shaw - December 11, 1959, by Gunfire
  • Patrolman Leo L. Kerber - December 10, 1961, Struck by Vehicle
  • Police Officer John J. Jenkins - January 3, 1979, Automobile Accident
  • Police Officer Ronald J. Siver - August 19, 1984, SCUBA Drowning
  • Police Officer Thomas W. Clark - January 17, 2006, Medical Condition
  • Police Officer Daryl R. Pierson - September 3, 2014, by Gunfire