The Wilmington Department of Police can trace its origins to 1738, which is thirty eight years before the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. The earliest form of policing in Wilmington was known as the watch and ward system that was common not only in the United States during this period but in Europe as well.
The town of Wilmington, as it was not yet a city, a high constable and a petite constable who were elected by town council. The constables would patrol during the daytime hours and were responsible for keeping the peace. The night watch would patrol the streets from seven in the evening until seven in the morning with one watchman for political ward. The duties of the watchmen were listed as “they shall light and trim the city lamps as necessary, they shall arrest and detain all malefactors, rogues, vagabonds and other persons abroad with evil design – they shall bring these persons before the nearest magistrate or mayor’s court”.
In 1848 Wilmington becomes a city and is named the county seat and with a growing population the police force grows as well. The Wilmington police are often referred to as the “city constables” and as the city police during this time. The department was relatively small in the following decades as it is less than forty officers by 1873 however there were outcries by the newspapers of the day to increase the force.
The department during this time came under what was commonly known as the “spoils system” in government. The entire police force was appointed by the mayor and served at his pleasure, which meant that an officer could be dismissed without cause and at anytime. It also meant that a new mayor could appoint a new police force while dismissing the entire existing force.
It was in 1863 that Officer John Baylis became the first police officer in Wilmington and in the State to be killed in the line of duty. Officer Baylis was arresting a subject for drunk and disorderly was he was shot and killed by the subject.
It was in 1891 that the City of Wilmington requested the State Legislature to pass what was known as the Metropolitan Police Act. It was with this act that the Wilmington Police were professionalized. The officers were now to be hired based on their ability to perform the job and not on political basis. The department was overseen by a board of commissioners and officers could now only be dismissed for cause with the right to a hearing prior to termination.
The Wilmington Police at this time embark on series of changes to create the first professional police force in the State of Delaware. In 1893 women are hired to serve as matrons. The matrons are sworn officers with the powers of arrest however their main function was to guard the female prisoners. It was said at the time that this would allow the female prisoners a sense of dignity. The department also sees the need for specialization within the department at this time and creates a unit to handle traffic as with the invention of the automobile the streets were changing so the Traffic Division was created in 1914.
The Detective Division is created, along with the Identification Unit, in 1915 so that the department can become proactive in its response to crime. This is the first unit of its type in Delaware and for two decades remains the only police investigative unit in the State. The identification unit was the first in the State to fingerprint and photograph all arrestees.
The staff of the Wilmington Police visited the New York City Police Academy in 1916 as they recognized the need for training officers. Upon their return the Police School of Instruction was created, new officers were required to attend and veteran officers returned annually for updated training. This was the first formal police training academy in the State.
The Department in 1922 created a squad of officers who were armed with special weapons (high powered rifles and submachine guns). These officers were then given additional training to qualify as marksmen as well as specialization training for dealing with large civil disturbances. The unit was a forerunner of the modern SWAT team of today but was also the first of its type in the State.
The 1924 was remembered for two very different reasons; the first is that in May of that year Matron Mary Davis was beaten to death by a female prisoner. The woman had been arrested for pointing a pistol at her husband and taken to the jail located in police headquarters. The woman lured Mary Davis into her cell by breaking a water pipe. It was then that she beat the matron to death and escaped the jail; however she was captured a few days later.
Lockmore Purnell was hired by the Wilmington Police in 1924 making him not only the first African American officer in Wilmington, but in the State. Several more officers of color would follow Lockmore Purnell’s lead and join the police department. The department also gave these officers the opportunity to advance in the ranks and eventually Samuel Pratcher became the first African American police chief in Wilmington in 1992. Officer Purnell served a full career and retired in 1944.
Detective Thomas Conaty was shot and killed on December 26th, 1946 in the early hours of the morning making him the last Wilmington police officer to be killed in the line of duty. The killer of Detective Conaty was a sixteen year old male who while out on a Christmas pass from Ferris Boy’s Reformatory who had just committed several burglaries in the downtown area when stopped by Detective Conaty and his partner. The detective was already shot twice in the leg and unable to defend himself when the murderer shot him a third time which severed his heart, killing him instantly.
The Wilmington Police Department has nine officers, known, to have been killed in the line of duty. One was beaten to death, three were killed in motorcycle accidents and five were shot to death. Their names are as follows:
John Baylis 1863
Andrew Peterson 1885
Francis Tierney 1915
Thomas Zebley 1919
Mary Davis 1924
Milton Wimbrow 1931
Howard Atwell 1926
Willard Pruitt 1944
Thomas Conaty 1946