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In 1892, St. Petersburg was a dusty little village. The entire police force consisted of one man, William A. Sloan, the town marshal.
Law enforcement, during this period, was like the old western films. There was the town marshal and any man he chose to deputize. He had a great deal of authority and his jurisdiction was a town of dirt streets and wooden sidewalks, complete with watering troughs and hitching posts. He patrolled the streets on horseback, which he had to provide for himself, along with his own saddle and the boots.
The town marshal had supreme authority to inspect privies, stove pipes, chimneys suspected of being dangerous, and licenses. He could use force to enter any premise where he thought there might be gambling or other improper behavior. There was no accountability for his actions. The town mayor also acted as the judge who could sentence miscreants to time in the city’s new jail, which had cost the tax payers $37.68 to build. The marshal was also charged with controlling the animal problem, that was out of control. A fence had to be built around William’s Park to keep the hogs and cows out.
Marshal Sloan was paid $20.00 per month and $1.50 for each conviction. He could hire as many special policemen at $1.50 per day as needed. Marshal Sloan soon got fed up and resigned seven months after his appointment ( September 6, 1894) and C.M. Gill was appointed. Gill served until November of 1895 when he was suspended for "neglect of duties devolving upon him." It is not specifically known what he did or didn’t do to raise the ire of the mayor and the two man city council. There was a succession of five town marshals until 1902 when the last marshal was appointed. His name was W.C. Dees and he served until 1903.
The population of St. Petersburg in 1903 had grown to 1,600 people, and a new charter was approved. The city now had telephone service, Central Avenue was paved and a franchise for a street car was granted. 1903 was also the year that the city was incorporated.
The St. Petersburg Police Department was officially born in 1903 with the appointment of Police Chief James J. Mitchell who was paid $100 dollars a month. The police force had four full time police officers. Police headquarters was an old grocery store at 345 First Avenue South and remained the headquarters for the next 50 years.
Sad to say, not only was Chief Mitchell the first police chief but was the first police officer to be killed in the line of duty. The chief was stabbed to death on Christmas day, 1905.
In those days, the mayor had absolute power and he appointed the police chief. This rankled the city council. They wanted the power for themselves and relegate the mayor to a secondary position. In the early 20s this all came to a head.
1923 was a turbulent time for the city police force. The feud between Mayor Frank Pulver and the city council boiled over after the city charter was changed to trim some of the mayor’s power. Chief Bidaman was an appointee of the mayor. The city council quickly fired him and appointed James Coslick. Chief Bidaman refused to leave office and set up headquarters in the city jail. He wrote a letter to the city council in October 1923 of his refusal to leave office:
" Dear Sir,
This is to confirm my notice in Times of this date that I consider myself chief of police and to advise you that I will not surrender the office.
Yours respectfully, E.J. Bidaman."
Coslick worked out of City Hall and the police department was split into two separate departments. This lasted from October 1923 to March 1924. Chief Coslick’s ill health, a court decision and a recall election, which ousted the mayor, finally ended the power struggle.
In 1924, the police department consisted of 20 officers, one patrol car, and motorcycles which the officer’s had to purchase themselves. Police radios were still ten years away and a police officer was required to come to the station and wait for the next call.
1934 ushered in a new era for police communications. The department installed radios in nine cars and designated the cars as prowl cars and in 1936 a county wide radio system was installed.
As the country grew, so did the City of St. Petersburg. Population and response times demanded that a new communication center be built in 1969 and in 1978 the implementation of the 911 system and the introduction of computers further expanded the department and the communications center.
In 1985, the police department was nationally accredited by the Commission for Accreditation of Law Enforcement (CALEA). Since then the department has been reaccredited 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012. In 2003, the department was also accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. In 2012 the deapartment was re-accredited by the CFA
Today, the St. Petersburg Police Department is one of the most professional departments in the country, and is considered an innovator in the area of law enforcement.