Arresting collection: Police officers hope to open museum - LancasterOnline: News

Arresting collection: Police officers hope to open museum

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Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 8:33 pm | Updated: 2:53 pm, Tue Sep 24, 2013.

The stuff accumulated over decades in drawers and closets, packed into cardboard boxes and piled in files at the city police station.

Here is a long, blue police coat, still bearing its brass buttons and the grimy ring around the collar from the city cop who wore it more than 100 years ago.

There is a cigar box filled with a tangle of old keys, likely to neighborhood call boxes, where officers checked in with the police station and called for the patrol wagon, pulled by a horse named Michael, to haul away the bad guys.

Lurid black-and-white crime scene photos capture a man still casually holding a cigarette between two fingers after being fatally shot in the chest.

An early personnel file - a stack of 3-by-5 cards - lists officers, including one Arthur W. Bates who briefly walked a beat from April to July 1930. His card reads, "Disappeared."

You could spend hours digging through the cache of historical artifacts at the city police station.

Officers hope that some day the public will see many of these items - minus the gorier photos - in a small city police museum at the West Chestnut Street station.

"We want to document our history," said Lt. Jarred Berkihiser, one of three city officers who are working on their own time to organize the museum.

Said Lt. Mike Winters, "It's fair to say all three of us have a lot of pride in the department and its history."

The museum is just starting to take shape. Berkihiser, Winters and Sgt. Tim Frey, who have more than 50 years of experience among them, are seeking help and financial support for the museum, which they hope to have open in two to three years.

They also are seeking donations of items that reflect the history of the department.

Though Lancaster city was incorporated in 1742, its police officers didn't come along until a bit later, according to a history of the department written by local resident Richard Shindle for the Lancaster County Historical Society.

Early on, police officers were more along the lines of night watchmen, performing civic tasks such as lighting the gas lamps that illuminated city streets and crying out the time of day.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that the hiring of officers became more formalized, when growing cities began to have problems with disorder. By the 1870s, officers were wearing uniforms and making arrests.

By the early 1920s, training became more formalized and a more modern department began to take shape, adding side arms (Colt .38 revolvers), a traffic squad and detectives.

Since then, the department has gone through many changes, which is documented in the photos, reports, ledgers and other memorabilia at the station.

In 1874, the department got its first station at Grant and Christian streets, now a parking lot to the rear of the county courthouse. In 1955, it moved to the Kendig C. Bare Building on East Chestnut Street. In 2004, it moved a block away to its present headquarters.

At one point, city police officers rode motorcycles. One old photo from the 1920s shows a lineup of police officers beside their cycles.

Until 1976, the city police also had their own ambulance, transporting the wounded to nearby hospitals. The department still has the metal plaque that adorned one of the vehicle's doors.

Officers had many talents. The department once had a shooting team and a choir . Among the artifacts are the sheet music to the choir's theme song, "Guardians of the Law," along with a 1960s-era photo of the group's appearance on television station WGAL.

"I have a tape of them singing," Frey said. "It's down in a file cabinet."

The department also had an active social life. For a number of years, it hosted a policeman's ball. Its collected programs include photos of officers on the force at the time, as well as ads that are a trip down memory lane of old Lancaster businesses: the Linen Hope Chest, Nichol's department store, Fassnacht's Pretzel Bakery.

The department's most compelling artifacts highlight the inherent drama of crime and punishment, and the awful toll of tragedies that make up an officer's day.

One poster shows an array of photos from a bank robbery: the glum-looking female suspect, a small can of lye she used as a weapon, and her handwritten note with a demand for $5,000 and a warning that lye can do awful things to a person's face.

There are ledgers that list in old-fashioned handwriting arrests for crimes such as "adultery," an accident scene photo showing a devastated bread truck driver who has just struck a pedestrian being tended to in the background, and a view of the unbelievable wreckage caused when a small plane crashed on North West End Avenue in 1967.

The seed for the museum actually was planted by a water leak and the promotion of former city police Capt. Steve Skiles, who is now the chief of the East Hempfield Township Police Department.

Skiles comes from a family of city police officers. His uncle, the late Lt. Ken Ochs, and father, the retired Sgt. Russell Skiles, preceded him into the department. Together, the three men had a 50-year string of service.

Skiles, who had some historical items given to him by his dad, found more when he began cleaning out drawers and files after his promotion in 2007. He also stumbled across a stash in a room that had developed a water leak.

He began laying the groundwork for the museum, and is glad that others have taken an interest.

"A lot of departments might have been around 50 years," he said. "Lancaster goes back to the 1700s, which is a huge amount of history.

"We have to preserve it."

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