Days Of Town Sergeants And Constables

The Days of Town Sergeants and Constables

By Jim Ignasher   

Worn By Sayles Williams.

     On the afternoon of June 26, 1855, the battered body of a 22-year-old man was found along the shore of the Blackstone River near the Globe Bridge which in those days connected Smithfield to Woonsocket. Coroner Spencer Mowry examined the body and determined that the man had been murdered. Investigation revealed he was last seen alive on the Smithfield side of the bridge, visiting what could politely be called a “red light district” which existed at the time.

     In 1855, Woonsocket was still a village within the town of Cumberland, and its southern border was denoted by the Blackstone River. Across the river lay the fledgling mill villages of Globe, Bernon, and Hamlet, all (then) located in Smithfield.

    Law enforcement in northern Rhode Island during this era was haphazard at best. Both Woonsocket and Smithfield had police constables who came under the direction of a town sergeant, but theses men didn’t perform police duties in the way we think of officers doing today. They didn’t wear uniforms, and most didn’t even have badges. And they didn’t regularly patrol a beat or answer “calls” the way their modern counterparts do. When it came to pay, some may have received small stipends, but more often than not they were paid from fees collected for serving legal papers and warrants, or for guarding and transporting prisoners to court.

    Constables received their appointments by elected town officials, and their tenure was subject to change with new administrations. There was no training for the job, and forensic science as we know it today was non-existent. Thus when it came to the discovery of the murder victim, determining what happened rested with the Coroner, who impaneled a Jury of Inquest. If this crime was solved, it’s not recorded.

     On March 17, 1730, the newly established town of Smithfield held its first town meeting during which town officials were elected. Uriah Mowry was chosen Town Sergeant, and three constables were appointed. What Smithfield lacked in population at the time it made up for in land, for at the time of incorporation the present day municipalities of North Smithfield, Lincoln, Central Falls, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River were all part of Smithfield. Therefore, it seems laughable that keeping the peace was left to only four officers.

     The system of employing town sergeants and constables had been carried over to the colonies from England, and Smithfield retained a constabulary into the 20th century. Smithfield town sergeants were appointed by the town council for one year terms ending in November. Constables were also appointed at that time from a list of names submitted by the town sergeant. The town sergeant also had the authority to temporarily appoint special constables in the event more manpower was needed. These special constables would be paid by the day.

     There were also constables who carried specific titles such as “Special Constable to Prosecute Tramps”, or “Special Constable to Enforce Bird Laws”, each of which were paid fifty dollars per year.

     In 1914 there was an up-tick in crime in the Georgiaville and Esmond neighborhoods prompting residents to petition the town council for night patrolmen. The request was eventually granted, but the constables only patrolled on alternate weekends and were paid a flat rate of $100 a year. Meanwhile, the town sergeant was authorized to regularly patrol Greenville on weekends for $200 per year. This was the first time regular police patrols began in Smithfield.   

Worn prior to 1976

     There was no police headquarters at that time, and any prisoners were lodged in one of two make-shit jails known as bridewells. One bridewell was in Georgiaville and the other in Greenville. Town records show constables were paid extra to guard, feed, and transport prisoners to court. Documentation exists that indicates these bridewells were in use as late as 1937.

     In 1915 Smithfield began to move away from a constable system to an organized police department. Over the next few years more night patrolmen were added, the town sergeant was referred to in council records as “Chief of Police”, and by 1919 officers began wearing uniforms for the first time. By 1922, the Smithfield Police Department consisted of a chief, six regular officers, and twenty-six constables.

     In 1923 the town purchased its first police motorcycle, and Officer Robert E. Tobin became the town’s first motor patrol officer. He was paid one dollar an hour to enforce traffic laws.

     In 1937, the town council passed an extensive police ordinance which outlined duties, pay, and rules and regulations of the police department. At that time Alfred N. Lacroix was appointed Smithfield’s first full-time chief with a yearly salary of $1,450.

     Although the town council had established a police department via ordinance, it wasn’t until 1950 that the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an act which created the full-time and permanent police department we know today.




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