One hundred years ago, in March 1913, Red Deer was incorporated as a city. However, as the new City’s council and administration tackled all the heady responsibilities of the new municipal status, they also had to face on-going problems with the local police department.
Red Deer had taken its first steps towards creating a police department shortly after the community was incorporated as a town. However, the ‘department’ was generally limited to a police chief and one or two additional constables, with one of those covering the night shift.
Although the police were not very well paid, and had little in the way of equipment, the situation worked out fairly well so long as Red Deer remained a small town with little crime.
Conditions changed dramatically, beginning in 1909, when Red Deer entered one of the strongest booms in its history. The Town’s population more than doubled in less than four years.
With the community growing rapidly, the crime rate rose dramatically. There were only 35 criminal cases in 1910. That jumped to nearly 250 in 1912. The most serious incident occurred in June 1911 when a drifter shot and nearly killed Police Chief George Bell during a botched armed robbery.
The police struggled to keep up with the escalation of problems. Additional constables were hired, but with the low rate of unemployment in the community, it was often a challenge to find good men. Those who were hired often lacked proper training.
Discipline in the police department was an on-going issue. Town council had planned on coming down severely on Chief Bell for the problems with his constables. However, after Bell very nearly lost his life in the line of duty, it became impossible for the Town councillors to rebuke the community’s hero.
Fortunately, Chief Bell recovered from his wounds, but the problems with the constables continued. The department hit a real low point in Feb. 2, 1912 when two constables were fired for pulling their revolvers on each other during an argument in a bar.
The Town council held special meetings to discuss the problems with the police and the growing number of public complaints about the department. However, because Red Deer was still a small community, many of the complaints came across as personal grudges. Moreover, some of the most vocal complainants were those who felt that they had been unfairly passed over for jobs as constables.
Matters came to a head in early May 1913. There was a boisterous party after hours, in the Crown Café. The police stated that they went into the restaurant around 1 a.m. to try and quiet things down. The celebrants claimed that the police had no legal right to enter the premises, as they did not have a warrant.
A brawl ensued. One man, J.D. Kelly, a local brakeman with the C.P.R. was quite badly injured during his arrest. When the constables literally dragged him down to the police station to put him into the cells, they were followed by a largely intoxicated mob from the Crown Café. Many shouted that they were going to make sure that Chief Bell lost his job over the incident.
Kelly subsequently stood trial for assault on Chief Bell during the melee. While Judge Lees found Kelly guilty, he suspended the sentence on the grounds that Kelly had been significantly injured during the arrest.
City council decided that enough was enough. The councillors asked for, and received, Chief Bell’s resignation, largely because there had been testimony at the trial that Bell himself had been drinking the night of the brawl at the Crown Café.
Bell soon got a new job with the British Columbia Provincial Police. The new Police Chief, Charles Anderson, got much better control over the department; in part by letting some of the constables go. Not all of the problems with the Red Deer police disappeared, but public concern over the department dropped off significantly.