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At turn of century, Boise builds a modern police department

The modern era in law enforcement in Boise City began with the election of pioneer hardware merchant Peter Sonna as mayor in 1893. Sonna came to office in very hard times. The national financial panic had put a number of downtown merchants out of business and severely strained the city’s resources. Nevertheless, Sonna, through his leadership and personal generosity, fathered a new age in city government.

On more than one occasion he paid for municipal improvements out of his own pocket, including the covered reservoir that still stands on the hill above the present VA hospital. Sonna built it when the U.S. Army threatened, because of an inadequate water supply, to abandon the military base that had been on the site since 1863. When the flume intended to control the annual flooding from Cottonwood Creek was breached, threatening the east end of town, Sonna paid for the repairs himself.

In his inaugural speech to the City Council, delivered on July 15, 1893, Sonna said, “The growing size and importance of our city seem to call for an advance upon the past in the organization, and possibly the size of our force of police officers. I would suggest that office of City Marshal be made, at least in duties, that of Chief of Police; that at least two (and possibly more if your judgment indicates the necessity) policemen be appointed, and that for the convenience of the public, and in keeping with their distinctive character as officers, and as a badge of the dignity of the law, each of the officers be properly uniformed.”

Joseph P. Chinn was named chief, with officers Shellworth, McAtee and Roy making up the department. Headquarters were in the basement of the new castle-like City Hall at 8th and Idaho streets where sleeping quarters for off-duty officers were provided. The uniforms, which Sonna himself purchased for the force, were of the London Bobby type, with the distinctive tall, bell-shaped helmets then popular across the country. When the uniforms first appeared on the streets on Aug. 15, 1893, the Idaho Statesman asked, “Who says Boise is not taking on metropolitan airs?”

An unusual fracas between uniformed officers and a drunken saloon crowd in February 1894, led not only to the arrest of the owner and three of his customers, but of Chief Chinn and Officer Shellworth. The men in the saloon were told by the police that they were disorderly and much too loud. They denied it, a pushing match followed, and the officers arrested four men. The saloon keeper then made a citizen’s arrest of the officers. A magistrate freed the saloon four but held the policemen for breach of the peace. This charge was also dismissed, but one of the men who had been arrested in the saloon then swore out a complaint of abuse by officers. A grand jury voted to ignore this charge, but the affair did little to enhance the department’s reputation, despite the handsome new uniforms.

Chief Chinn was relieved of duty on Nov. 1, 1894, and Julius Shellworth moved into the position, thereby reducing the force from four to three. The chief’s salary was $85 per month.

When Walter E. Pierce was elected mayor in July 1895 there was disagreement over the appointment of a new chief. The City Council and the mayor each claimed the right. The council prevailed and chose famous Indian fighter, scout, and frontier marshal Orlando “Rube” Robbins. He continued the move toward a modern police department by creating a detective bureau, something the city could not afford, so Robbins created a detective agency of his own. His ad in the Statesman promised “reasonable rates,” and he signed it “Chief of Police and Superintendent of Detectives.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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