When Milwaukee became a village in 1834, it had a town marshal; when it became a city, it had a city marshal appointed by the person in power at the time. The marshal was not able to cope with the lawless element. Thieves, burglars and robbers were finding the rapidly growing Milwaukee a good, safe place to ply their illegal trades.
The county sheriff tried to keep the city crime down but did not have enough deputies to handle the crime wave. One of the deputy sheriffs in the year 1851 was Herman L. Page. He had some success catching a few robbers, and was elected sheriff in 1853. Page knew a farmer named William Beck living near Granville, and he also knew that Beck had been a detective on the New York police force. Page made Beck a deputy sheriff and told him to get busy catching thieves.
Beck caught a lot of them, and although his work eliminated many criminals, lawlessness continued, and citizens began demanding a police force. On September 3, 1855, Alderman Powers introduced an ordinance for the creation of a police force. The ordinance was printed in the official papers of the city the next day. The ordinance passed after some amending, and on October 4, 1855, the Milwaukee Police Department began functioning.
William Beck was chosen Chief of Police by Mayor James B. Cross and given the unanimous vote of the Common Council. His salary was $800 per year. Chief Beck selected six policemen, picked for their size and fighting ability. To arrest a man in those days, it was usually necessary to whip him first. These officers were constantly seen with black eyes, bruised cheeks, and split lips. They earned $480 per year. The first policemen were Fred Keppler, John Hardy, George Fische, James Rice, L.G. Ryan and David Coughlin.
In 1861, mobs staged two serious riots. The first was a bank riot on June 24. Many Milwaukee laborers were paid in scrip that some of the banks refused to acknowledge. A mob, angry because they thought they were being cheated out of their wages, gutted two banks. A little more than two months later, another mob attacked the jail, bent on lynching Marshall Clark and James Shelton, two African-American men being held in the stabbing death of Derbey Carney and the wounding of another man. Shelton escaped (and was later acquitted after a trial), but the mob seized and lynched Clark. Beck was blamed and resigned in October.
Beck returned as Chief, in 1863-1878 and again in 1880-1882. The job of police chief was insecure and highly political. Every time a chief was removed, all of his friends on the force resigned, knowing they would be fired if they didn't. The police department morale was low, and it was charged that many of the unsolved robberies were pulled by the policemen who, knowing they were about to be fired, wanted to take a stake with them.
The citizens of Milwaukee became fed up with the spoils system. They sent a delegation to Madison and demanded that a state law be passed to take the police and fire departments out of politics. The legislature passed a law creating a police and fire commission, and insulating the departments from political influence. The first chief to serve under this system was John T. Janssen, who became chief in 1888 and served as chief for 33 years. When he was hired, the department had 181 members. Policemen worked as many as 17 hours per day and earned $700 per year.
Perhaps the most tragic event in the history of the department occurred on November 24, 1917. A bomb was discovered near a church at 355 Van Buren St., in the old third ward. Two boys brought the bomb to the central police station at Oneida and Broadway, and turned it over to police. The station keeper was showing it to the shift commander, Lieutenant Flood, when it exploded. Nine members of the Department were killed in the blast. Although the crime was never solved, it was suspected that the bomb had been placed outside the church by anarchists.
In 1921, the Harbor Patrol of the Milwaukee Police Department was established. The Harbor Patrol keeps watch over the waterways of the City of Milwaukee.
The first African-American Police Officer on the Milwaukee Police Department was Judson W. Minor, appointed on October 13, 1924. It took over 50 years to mark the next "first". On April 21, 1975, Ada Wright became the first female Police Officer in the Milwaukee Police Department. By 1997, 29.7% of the police force was minority, and 14.7% were women.
Significant legislative changes occurred in the years between 1977 and 1984. These amendments expanded the authority of the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and specified the relationships between the Board and the chiefs. In summary, these changes provide for limited terms for the chiefs, empower the Board to promulgate rules and give directions to the chiefs, and require the Board to conduct an annual policy review of the departments.