AUGUSTA — Dozens of city police employees, retirees and their families gathered Thursday to celebrate a birthday 164 years in the making.
Thursday marked the 164th anniversary of the Augusta Police Department’s formation. The first city marshal, George W. Jones, was sworn in on March 27, 1850, marking the police agency’s the first day as a city department.
Augusta police, who were uncertain of their founding date until a recent effort to recover departmental history, marked the occasion by holding a “birthday party” at the department headquarters on Union Street. Dozens of current police officers, as well as retirees and their families, turned out for the event.
“It’s a celebration,” said Police Chief Robert Gregoire, a 25-year department veteran. “We got a great turnout.”
Nailing down the department’s birthday was an important motivator behind Gregoire’s decision more than a year ago to begin tracking down department history. He assigned the task to Sgt. Christian Behr, who had served as the department’s unofficial historian.
“It only took about 30 seconds of conversations and he was on it like a dog on a T-bone,” Gregoire recalled during the ceremony.
Behr, who volunteered dozens of hours searching libraries and archives, was recognized by a plaque that will be hung alongside some of the artifacts and articles he was able to collect.
Behr’s brief comments highlighted some of the history he’d uncovered, much of which he said indicates Augusta’s trend of setting the pace for Maine law enforcement. The city had the state’s first call-box system and later, in the 1930s, was the first to incorporate fingerprinting and photos in investigations. More recently, the city was the first to switch to digital communications.
“Augusta police have always been at the forefront of technology,” Behr said.
Mayor William Stokes, who also is chief of the criminal division in the Office of the Maine Attorney General, said he works with law enforcement throughout the state. The Augusta Police Department’s legacy, built in part by the gathered retirees, continues to be marked by integrity and professionalism, he said.
“I can tell you from my personal experience … that the Augusta Police Department is held in very high regard throughout the state of Maine,” Stokes said. “We can be very, very proud of the work they’re doing.”
Gregoire hopes to set aside March 27 in the future as a day for retirees to come back. Those who gathered for Thursday’s events greeted familiar faces and quickly settled into reminiscing. Many of those who returned, such as Clyde Martin and Charlie Winslow, left the department more than 20 years ago. Zelma Drake, widow of former Chief Waldo Drake, attended the celebration.
“Her father was the chief of police back in the 1950s,” Gregoire said.
Bob Wagner, who joined the department in 1974 and retired as a patrol sergeant 20 years later, said modern law enforcement is much more advanced in technology and training than when he served. Tools such as Tasers, which provide a nonlethal means of subduing a person, and in-cruiser computers, which nearly instantaneously provide crucial information to officers on scene, have made police more effective and help prevent situations from escalating, Wagner said.
“When they get into something on the street now, they can defuse them a little faster and a little better,” he said. “The equipment they’ve got is so far superior to what we had.”
Crime has changed, too. Wagner said officers in his day primarily dealt with marijuana. They rarely, if ever, saw heroin.
“The drugs they’re dealing with now I never even saw,” Wagner said.
Gregoire said history such as that shared by Wagner and the other retirees who turned out helps give current officers perspective and appreciation for their department’s heritage.
“History can be easily forgotten,” he said.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected] Twitter: @CraigCrosby4