From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

With much ongoing discussion about creating a new police station or public safety building, I decided to look back to see what I could find on policing in Rochester’s earlier days. Surprisingly, very little of Mary Hall Leonard’s book on old Rochester’s history deals with policing. There is a lot of mention of laws being passed and of the fines that would be levied if those laws were disobeyed. She also writes about three types of officers involved in maintaining law and order in the 18th and early 19th century. They are Constables, Tithingmen and Justices of the Peace.

            The Justices of the Peace who were elected for seven year terms had jurisdiction over minor claims and offenses. They could also perform marriages. This was considered a position of great importance.

            Tithingmen were the equivalent of church constables. Their job was to keep order on the “Sabbath Day.” It seems this job extended beyond the walls of the meeting house. An ad in the May 15, 1815 edition of the New Bedford Mercury listed the names of Rochester’s 12 Tithingmen. Above this list it said,” The Tithingmen of Rochester gave notice that they should enforce the law.” Because this was printed in a New Bedford newspaper, it is believed its purpose was to discourage an unruly element from “New Bedford’s seafaring community” from coming to town on a Sunday and creating disorder.

            Constables whose title seems to denote policemen were town officers, although not much mention of them is found. The first Constables were chosen in 1692. Their chief job was to collect taxes which made both the men and the job unpopular. The job was so unpleasant that many who were elected to the position refused to take on the job. This happened so often that a fine was levied on anyone who refused to be Constable. History records that many simply paid the fine and a lot of early town meeting time was spent trying to fill the position of Constable.

            Eventually, Rochester had a police force, but as late as 1966, when the town’s population was 1,800, there were no police cruisers, no police office and no full-time officers. At first, the Police Chief operated out of his private home with his wife as dispatcher. Part-time officers used their own vehicles.

            Later, the police shared space in the fire station and had an office in two different locations in Town Hall. If you’ve ever wondered about the little door (pictured here) on the parking lot side of the building, it was the door to the police office. In 1982 the population had almost doubled, rising to 3,192, and in 1987, the police moved into a three-room trailer donated by SEMASS. They operated out of this trailer near the fire station for 13 yrs.

            Over the years, many Police Chiefs advocated for a new police headquarters, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the current police station was completed, and the members of the force were able to settle in on Dexter Lane. Now the town is looking to move beyond this 22-year-old structure.

By Connie Eshbach

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