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dave obee Victoria police mark 150 years

By Dave Obee

On July 7, 1858 -- 150 years ago this week -- Gov. James Douglas appointed Augustus Frederick Pemberton as commissioner of police for the colony of Vancouver Island.

Pemberton's new role marked the establishment of the first formal police service in what is now the province of British Columbia. Before his appointment, policing had been done by a volunteer group known as the Voltigeurs. A constable, Thomas Hall, was hired in 1854.

The service launched in 1858 was the direct forerunner of two police forces -- the British Columbia Provincial Police and the Victoria Police. The provincial police service survived until August 15, 1950, when the RCMP took over its duties.

Victoria's police force, on the other hand, is still with us -- and this week it will celebrate 150 years of existence.

No other police service in Western Canada can match its longevity.

Pemberton, who was born in Dublin, arrived in Victoria in December 1855. It took him a while to get here. He went to Panama, crossed the isthmus overland, then made his way to San Francisco. From there, he took a sailing ship to San Francisco to Port Townsend, then a trading sloop from there to Ross Bay. He walked to Fort Victoria, arriving during Sunday services.

Pemberton had planned to be a farmer, but Douglas decided he needed help because of the onslaught of miners bound for the Cariboo. There had been too many wild brawls on Fort Street, so something had to be done.

Originally, the police job was to go to Chartres Brew, but he had apparently been lost in a shipwreck on his way across the Atlantic.

He finally arrived in the colony after Pemberton had started work, but that was no problem. Brew was put in charge of policing on the mainland.

Pemberton and Brew quickly became close friends. When Brew's sister Jane Augusta arrived in the colony in late 1858, Pemberton met her boat, and they became friends, too. They married a couple of years later.

British Columbia's first policeman to die in the line of duty was Johnston Cochrane, who was shot on June 2, 1859. His killer was never caught.

By 1860, Victoria's police department was led by Chief Francis O'Conner, and consisted of 12 constables, a sanitary officer, a night watchman, and a jailer. The police station, jail and barracks were initially within Fort Victoria, then moved to Bastion Square.

The City of Victoria came into being in 1862. A few years later, the policing responsibility was transferred to the civic government from the colonial one.

In 1889, a year after Henry Sheppard succeeded Charles Bloomfield as chief, the police moved to new quarters -- an addition to city hall at 647 Cormorant Street, now Centennial Square.

The new police headquarters included, the Daily Colonist noted, a lock-up, jail yard and police barracks.

"The jail yard is opened to the street, and the unfortunates confined in the lock-up must, for the present, be kept behind bars all the time," the Colonist reported.

As Victoria continued to grow, the police service expanded to keep pace. There were 21 officers on staff in the 1880s and 54 by 1910. That increase put pressure on the police building that had seemed perfect just a couple of decades ago.

On Dec. 6, 1915, Victoria police moved to a new home, an $80,000 building at 625 Fisgard St. The Colonist welcomed the change.

"Few cities in the Dominion have had such wretchedly inadequate and insanitary quarters for their police departments as Victoria," it said.

"How the department ever managed to get along in the restricted and unhealthy quarters which, for nearly a generation past, have been their home is a question which the officers and men themselves would find it hard to answer."

There was one small problem. After paying for the building, the city had nothing left to upgrade equipment.

As a result, old desks "bearing the scars of many years service" were simply moved from the old location to the new.

Despite the limitations, the Victoria department was determined to use the latest technology. In the early 1890s, for example, it became the first department in western Canada to use mug shots to identify the bad guys, and occasional bad girls.

Many of these early photographs were taken by legendary pioneer photographer Hannah Maynard.

In 1903, chief John Langley acquired a horse-drawn patrol wagon. The arrival of motor cars in the area caused a bit of concern, and by 1908 city council members were talking about whether the police should have their own horseless carriage. The first motorized patrol wagon arrived soon after.

Until the 1950s, police officers were rarely armed. Since then they have started using other tools of the trader, including the breathalyzer in 1970, computers in patrol cars in 1984, and the Taser in 1999.

Uniforms have changed several times over the years, from a military style in the early years to the modern look, adopted in the 1990s, that is common to other municipal forces in British Columbia.

One of the uniform changes created a storm of protest, with George Warren, the head of the local tourism organization, leading the push to keep things as they were.

The police wanted to dispense with the bobby-style helmets, but Warren argued that the helmets were distinctive, and helped reinforce the bit-of-England image that he had worked so hard to promote.

The dispute raged until the police agreed that officers in highly visible tourist areas, such as downtown intersections, would continue to wear the helmets. The helmets were finally scrapped in 1950.

The police spent 80 years in their premises on Fisgard, which finally became just as cramped and unhealthy as the city hall location which preceded it. Even the removal of the courtrooms in the 1970s did not provide enough space to make difference.

The answer was yet another new building, one able to hold the 238 officers and staff. On Aug. 5 and 6, 1996, the police made the move to 850 Caledonia Street.

The Victoria and Esquimalt police were merged on Jan. 1, 2003, and today the police serve the two communities through the headquarters as well as the branch office in Esquimalt.

Posted July 6, 2008


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