Skip to main Content

Department History

hief Bud Purdy

Chief E. Wilson Purdy - A Life of Service

Will Michaels

Reprinted from the Northeast Journal, May/June 2024, St. Petersburg, Florida

E. Wilson “Bud” Purdy assumed his position as St. Petersburg's chief of police in October 1958 and served until January 1963. During those years he reformed and expanded the department, modernized its administration, and provided leadership through the beginnings of the Civil Rights era in the city. When Purdy assumed control there were 123 officers; when he left, the department had expanded to around 500.

Purdy came well prepared for his job. He was a graduate of Michigan State University where he enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Program and earned a Bachelor of Science in Police Administration in 1942. The day he graduated he received his commission as a Second Lieutenant and married his college sweetheart, Jane Dykman. Shortly after returning from a three-day honeymoon, he received orders posting him to the Military Police Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas. While military police can be traced back to George Washington and the Revolution, it was not until 1941 that the Military Police Corps was established as a permanent branch of the Army. The corps started with but 2,000 men in 1941 and over the course of the war grew to over 200,000. Purdy and seven of his fellow graduates from the Michigan State Police Administration Program, the first of its kind in the US, were tasked with establishing the MP Program at Fort Riley, the first Military Police Training and Replacement Center. According to Purdy's unpublished memoir (1997/2010), he began by establishing the Traffic Control Unit and writing the first Army Traffic Control Manual. However, he was shortly reassigned to conduct basic training for an MP battalion of Black troops. After successfully completing that assignment he returned to traffic control training, and later was transferred to Fort Custer, Michigan, also a Military Police Replacement Center. In 1945, Purdy was shipped overseas to the Philippines where he had a range of assignments, including commander of the 800th MP Company.

In June 1946, Purdy was discharged from the Army at his request. He wanted to pursue a civilian law enforcement career. That same month he joined the FBI. Given his experience with the Military Police he was quickly assigned to four counties in upper New York and nearby Vermont working out of Albany. After about a year he was reassigned to the FBI's Miami, Florida, Division, as Resident Agent in St. Petersburg.

Purdy, who was an expert in judo, was a hands-on agent. On one occasion in Clearwater, he kicked in the door to a fugitive's room. As he wrote in his memoir, “I…landed in the middle of the guy's back; he was laying face down on the bed. I ran my hand up his arm, discovered he was holding a loaded and cocked automatic and disarmed him.” He described the St. Petersburg area as a busy place for the FBI “because so many northern crimes resulted in perpetrators coming to Florida to hide out.” At one time he had the highest criminal apprehension rate in the division, earning him the name “Bulldog Purdy.”

In the 1920s St. Petersburg had Florida's second largest Ku Klux Klan branch, or klavern. During Purdy's time in Florida the Klan was still a formidable force and threat to public safety and civil liberty, and local law enforcement was occasionally working in collusion with it. Perhaps most infamously as documented in the bestseller Devil in the Grove, in 1949 four young African Americans were wrongly accused of rape in Lake County, located in the center of the state. The Klan was well established there, and it initiated a wave of violence against African Americans in which two of the defendants were shot, killing one. Thurgood Marshall, later Supreme Court Justice, represented the surviving defendants. In 1958, Governor LeRoy Collins criticized Manatee County Sheriff Roy F. Baden for leading a Klan parade through a Black neighborhood in Bradenton.

While serving as the St. Petersburg Resident FBI Agent, Purdy enlisted an informant to embed in the local Klan who obtained access to Klan membership lists. Purdy writes in his memoir that he himself “attended numerous KKK rallies and learned to chant and clap like the rest of the rednecks, and fortunately no one fingered me…” The Klan members were not all rednecks through. “There were many highly respected members of the communities who were Klansman, because that was the way they were raised.” He met with the informant at least monthly in a downtown St. Petersburg church.

Given his tenure as FBI Resident Agent in St. Petersburg, Purdy was a natural successor to St. Petersburg’s police chief J. R. Reichert upon his retirement after 32 years with the Police Department. Purdy assumed the position of chief in October 1958. His immediate concern was the department budget. As he wrote, “My first day as St. Petersburg Police Department Chief, I asked the secretary…for the budget. She presented me with a sheet of paper with figures on it indicating the amount of money allotted to the police department for the coming year. When I asked how it was prepared, she explained that each year, about two or three days before the budget was due at City Hall, the chief would instruct her to add about ten percent to each budget code and send it over.” Purdy said the department “couldn’t exist” with that budget and that he would submit a new budget requesting changes in various line items complete with justifications. The department staff said that couldn’t be done, but he did it anyway. When the city administrator received the budget, he said he had never seen anything like it, gave his approval, and persuaded the city council to tap city contingency funds to support it.

Next Purdy reorganized the department into Uniform, Detective, and Service Divisions and designated responsibilities so that “for the first time everyone knew where they were assigned and what their responsibilities were.” When he took over, each officer was allotted $50 to buy their own blue uniforms. “The $50 was presented just before Christmas, so usually it went for family Christmas rather than uniforms. Consequently…the personnel looked like they had come from the Salvation Army. Uniforms were ill-fitting, patched, and a variety of blue colors.” Purdy established a new policy of city-furnished uniforms with a green-and-white color scheme that lasted until 2015 when it was replaced with the current dark blue.

Purdy’s other reforms included shortening the week from six to five days, reprioritizing first-use of new patrol cars from the detectives to the Uniform Patrol Division, and establishing a police training academy. In 1960, Purdy also established the Police Athletic League for youth.

When Purdy assumed command, St. Petersburg, like the rest of Florida and the South, was heavily segregated, and this included the police department. While the Supreme Court had issued its Brown decision in 1954, declaring segregated schools illegal, Florida fought tooth and nail to keep them segregated. Schools in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg were not effectively integrated until 1971. After a long struggle, beaches and buses in St. Petersburg were integrated in 1959. Public accommodations of course were segregated, and in 1962 the Yankees relocated spring training from St. Petersburg to Ft. Lauderdale likely due to refusal of local hotels to accommodate Black players.

Purdy described the racial situation in the department upon his arrival: “We had three Black officers on the department, who were restricted to the Black section of town. They could not arrest a white law-violator or write a traffic citation to a white motorist. They had separate roll calls, and were not permitted to use the main locker room or the men’s restrooms. They also were not provided any training.”Purdy stated he empowered the Black officers to arrest whites, write traffic tickets, and began assigning Black officers for the first time to essentially white events and traffic control. (Exactly when Black officers were empowered to arrest whites is unclear.) He promoted Black officer Sam Jones to Sergeant. When some white officers objected to training with the Black officers, Purdy gave them a choice: do it or leave. None left. In October 1960, officer Hosea Rogers was appointed the department’s first Black detective.

Two notable civil rights challenges were presented to Purdy during his tenure. In June 1961, St. Petersburg was the final stop for a group of Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were not only testing their right to ride public transport throughout the South, but also to eat in transport facilities, in this case a Greyhound Bus restaurant. While the heroic Freedom Riders were treated with abuse and brutality in many areas of the South, this was not the case in St. Petersburg. A number of plain clothes detectives were on hand to prevent violence. One white man did harass the local welcoming committee, but he was promptly arrested. After the Freedom Riders’ stop, St. Petersburg Black police officer Freddie Crawford wrote a personal memo to Purdy saying, “In reference to the recent visit to the city by the‘Freedom Riders,’ and the minimum amount of trouble that was encountered by our department and the riders themselves, I think that it was a positive approach taken by you in the outset that avoided any trouble of any extent. It is for this purpose…that I write this memorandum to you, realizing that it takes an ordinary person to stand up for the right thing but an extraordinary one to voice his opinion.” Crawford was a member of the “Courageous Twelve” Black officers who successfully sued the city and the police department in 1965 charging discrimination after Purdy had left.

In 1960 the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups and leaders began a boycott of department stores operating segregated lunch counters. Again, there was relatively little trouble during the boycott in St. Petersburg. Purdy sent only Black officers to the boycott demonstrations, keeping white officers on backup alert. When a Ku Klux Klan wizard from nearby Oldsmar tried to make trouble, Purdy ordered him out of town. In January 1961, 15 stores in greater St. Petersburg, including Kress, Maas Brothers, Woolworth’s, and Webb City, dropped their segregation policies. During the boycott, Purdy stated, “Segregation and integration are not police problems. They are social problems.

Any violation of the law which occurs as a result of segregation or integration will be handled as violations on an individual basis.” He went on to say the police department’s only interest in the matter was to maintain law and order. Historian Peyton L. Jones reflected in his work Struggle in the Sunshine City: “Since becoming chief in 1958, Purdy had helped repair the historically troubled relationship between the Black community and a mostly white police force.”

Recognizing outstanding talent when he saw it, the governor of Pennsylvania tapped Purdy to become Commissioner of Pennsylvania State Police in January 1963. He served in that position until 1966 when he became Sheriff of Dade County, Florida, and subsequently Dade County Director of Public Safety, where, in 1972, he initiated a policy of equality for women’s advancement in the police department.

Purdy passed away in 2014 at the age of 94. The St. Petersburg Rotary Club annually presents awards to outstanding police officers in the names of police volunteer Ned March and Bud Purdy. In addition to his legacy of modern and equitable police administration in St. Petersburg, Purdy’s daughter Pam Mesmer Frohock says, “He was always available to listen and offer sage advice, encouraged everyone to be all they could be, and reminded each of us of the importance of pride in a life’s contribution.”

End of page