History of the Police Department
Origins of the Police Department
Within two decades after William Byrd II established the long-disputed dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728, people began settling in south central Virginia. William Wynne was one of the first. Coming from eastern Virginia, Wynne began operating a ferry across the Dan River. A large rock outcropping in the riverbed prevented further upstream travel by boat but allowed for safe passage across the river.
The tobacco trade in this area of Virginia was in its infancy but was quickly expanding. A small community emerged opposite the ferry on the river's south bank. Until the founding of Danville in 1793, the little village was known simply as Wynne's Falls. The population of less than 200 required no police protection.
The election of a municipal government followed the 1833 incorporation of a town now boasting 400 residents. James Lanier became the village's first mayor. Two aldermen, four councilmen, a recorder, and a town sergeant, Allen Jones, assisted him. Jones' annual salary of $100 was probably sufficient for his sporadic duties as the town's lone law enforcement officer.
Not until eight years later was the first court session held in Danville, and that took place in a rented room of the Roman Eagle Masonic Lodge on Market Street (today's Craghead Street). The need for a town courthouse would not come for another three decades. By 1850, however, the population numbered more than 1,700 residents, and the Town of Danville claimed five schools, four churches, five banks, and two newspapers. The police department also grew; it now had one full-time officer and a part-time assistant.
The year 1856 signalled a significant achievement for the town as the Richmond and Danville Railroad arrived. In less than a decade, the population of the quiet little village doubled. With increased growth came the inevitable rise in crime. On May 18, 1860, a man known to us now only as "Jordan" became the first criminal to be hanged. A gallows erected at the rear of the jail on Market Street was the site of the murderer's execution. Assisting were police officers T.D. Watkins, A.T. Burks, and J.G. Dyer.
In August of 1860, Judge George H. Gilmer presided over the first session of Circuit Court as many legal conflicts began occurring with the Civil War about to start. During the Civil War, the police force grew with the addition of two officers and a town constable. Assisting Chief William L. Robinson were officers William T. West and A.M. Pugh. The constable, A.G. Taylor, also performed the duties of weighmaster, a position responsible for the accuracy of the scales used for selling meat, vegetables, and other items at the community market. Fines collected by the weighmaster and police officers regularly exceeded their salaries by a factor of three. Before the war ended in 1865, large influxes of people required the force to add three additional officers, A.S. Bagby, S.A. Yates, and J.E. Cress.
In 1873, Danville erected its first courthouse. The building sat on the east side of Patton Street near its intersection with Union Street. Crowned with an octagonal clock tower, the Victorian-style stone building stood adjacent to a newly built red brick fire station. Five years later, J.B. Ley won a $10,000 bid to construct a new stone jail. This large, no-frills, secure structure stood at the rear of the Courthouse. During the next decade, the police force grew to nine officers, four of whom were black men.
In 1891, the Danville Police Department consisted of the following officers: Chief Green Williams, Sergeant D.W. Woodson, and Privates J.B. Long, R.S. Wynne, C.B. Carter, Benjamin F. Morrisett, L.M. Kennedy, George W. Church, C.G. Freeman, and E.H. Ferguson.
The 20th Century
Embarrassment fell upon the Danville Police Department in March 1911 when Chief R.E. Morris was identified as a fugitive from Georgia. Authorities there alleged that he had escaped from custody in the autumn of 1898 after being convicted of murder. His real name was Thomas Edgar Stripling. After wandering through the Carolinas for several years, Stripling arrived in Danville in 1903 and applied for a position on the police force. Exhibiting a sterling character as a family man and churchgoer, he was elected four years later to the position of chief. It has been said that a traveling salesman identified Morris as the man who had shot Billy Cornet in Harris County, Georgia, 14 years earlier. Stripling swore the shooting was in self-defense. Arrested and returned to Georgia, he served his prison term and died peacefully in 1958 at the age of 93 in a Georgia nursing home.
The early years of the 20th century found new prosperity in Danville as the textile and tobacco industries continued their upward spiral of growth. Sadly, with that growth and the expansion of the Police Department came the death of Officer William H. McCray in October 1917. Killed by a shotgun blast through a door while serving a warrant, Officer McCray was the first recorded death of a Danville police officer in the performance of his duties.
Less than four years later, in June 1921, another Danville officer, John P. Jones, would suffer a similar fate on N. Main Street when a store owner rigged a shotgun to his front door to discourage thieves who had targeted his business in a series of burglaries. As Officer Jones checked the unlocked door, the gun discharged, striking him in the chest. Today the names of both of these officers are inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Demolition of the old courthouse and fire station occurred in 1926, and a new modern, stone structure (the current Municipal Building) rose in their place. The fire station found quarters in a new red brick facility on Bridge Street. The jail building, deemed adequate, remained in service for another half-century. Commenting at the time of the old courthouse's demise, long-time Mayor Harry Wooding reflected on Danville as he remembered it in 1850: "We had but one policeman at the time, few laws, and fewer ordinances, and many of the misdemeanors then committed for which persons are now hailed to court were overlooked or unnoticed and soon forgotten."
Later 20th Century and the Civil Rights Era
By 1952, the department had grown to 79 officers, 10 of whom were women. Soon-to-be-retired Detective Sergeant William C. "Bill" Talley posed for a photograph with his fellow officers that year. However, his partner of more than 30 years was absent. Joseph C. "Joe" Lewis had retired just two years earlier. The detective team of Lewis and Talley was known far and wide for its competency in solving crimes and apprehending lawbreakers. Cited on several occasions by various government law enforcement agencies for their uncanny ability to capture fugitives, Lewis and Talley received national acclaim.
Widespread civil rights protests occurring throughout the nation came to Danville during the summer of 1963 and were a turning point for both the City and the Danville Police Department. Charged with the responsibility of upholding and enforcing the law using techniques and tactics common at the time, the police performed these duties but not without controversy. The experience gained during this trying period of civil unrest began to shape the police department in many different ways, as evidenced at the time by the writings of Detective Captain Jubal E. Towler, whose published works still offer sound advice in the use of practical police procedures.
After the civil rights demonstrations, tensions began to ease somewhat in the city. Chief E.G. McCain hired William "Bill" Wesley Terry as the department's first African-American officer with full police powers. The hiring of two additional African-American officers would follow by the end of 1967.
In 1966, the Police Department changed its work schedule from a 30-day cycle to a seven-day cycle. This schedule was well-accepted by the officers because it gave them more time off during the month. As with the prior schedule, days off were based on seniority; needless to say, the older officers were the ones to get off on holidays and weekends.
In June 1966, an attempt was made to murder Eugene Link, the Commonwealth Attorney. Mr. Link and his wife had returned home late one night and almost immediately smelled smoke. Link began checking his house inside and out and discovered that dynamite had been placed around the exterior of the house. Link, at great risk to his own life, began pulling the fuses from the dynamite. Only one stick detonated, which blew a large hole in the foundation of his home. This began a high-priority, all-out investigation by the detective division. Mr. Link was assigned a bodyguard and 24-hour surveillance of his home, which continued for months. This investigation carried detectives all over the Commonwealth. Despite months of intense investigation, no charges were ever filed.
Danville, like many other cities, has had its share of unsolved homicides. None was more brutal than the January 1967 murder of a young woman named Eileen Douglas. She had been reported missing by her mother and boyfriend. A few days later, her body was found along the railroad tracks near her mother's home. Douglas had been beaten and knifed, her throat slashed to near decapitation. Evidence at the scene clearly showed that the murder occurred elsewhere and her body placed at the tracks. The investigation moved quickly, and a strong suspect was developed. Detective T. Neal Morris, who was the lead investigator and who would later become Chief of Police, said this case haunted him his entire career. For years, Morris would review the case folder trying to resolve the case. In later years, the suspect died from a heart attack. Due to the death of the suspect, one could conclude the case was resolved, but not the way Detective Morris had hoped. Morris would refer to this case many times during his career in lectures and speeches.
In the mid-1960s, the Police Department was confronted with a high turnover rate due to the opening of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. This new company paid higher salaries and provided better insurance and retirement packages than the city. During this time and into the late 1960s, a professional gang of safe burglars struck the city periodically. They were nicknamed The Wong Gang because of the comical writings left behind in the safe dust. Examples of the writings left were "Wong is Back," "Wong is Happy," and "Wong Disappointed," depending on their take for the day. It is believed that this group had connections within our local criminal element.This group would not only hit in Danville but in the surrounding areas such as Roanoke, Greensboro, and Martinsville. Many hours of surveillance, all-night stakeouts, and countless hours of investigative time were put into this investigation. Suspects were developed, but the investigation yielded little. No big arrests were ever made, and the break-ins eventually stopped by the early 1970s.
During the 1970s, a big change would occur in the Police Department. In April 1971, Chief E.G. McCain retired and Major T. Neal Morris became the Chief of Police for the next 32 years. At the age of 32, he was the youngest police chief in Virginia. Morris had worked for the department for 12 years and served in all divisions in the department. Morris had new ideas and a different management style, and he began reshaping and restructuring the department immediately. The military-style uniforms gave way to a more contemporary style. He hired the first two female officers with full police powers, M.E. Bangs and M.M. Moore. Although the department had employed women for years, their roles were that of parking enforcement and school crossing guards. These two women would undergo the same training as their male counterparts.
In 1971-1972, Danville had its first undercover drug investigation. With evidence provided by an undercover officer, this year-long investigation resulted in numerous arrests for the illegal sale of marijuana and other illegal narcotics. In May 1972, an accident occurred at the intersection of N. Main Street and River Street. An ambulance carrying a patient, her daughter, and two attendants collided with a fully loaded oil tanker truck. This collision caused a tremendous explosion and the deaths of five people. A telephone lineman escaped by climbing down from the telephone he was on, which was right in the middle of the explosion a few moments later. The billowing smoke could be seen from all over the city. It was rumored that a plane had crashed, but the truth would soon be evident to investigating officers.
In August 1973, a homicide occurred in the Dan River Mills parking lot, Schoolfield Division. When police arrived and confronted the suspect, a running gun battle ensued with over 25 rounds fired. This is by far the most violent confrontation Danville police officers have ever faced. Two officers were wounded, including Officer M.E. Bangs, one of the first female officers hired by the department. Bangs emptied her six-shot revolver and reloaded it until she ran out of ammunition. Despite being wounded twice, she continued to face the suspect. The suspect was eventually wounded and captured. Bangs would gain national recognition through Paul Harvey News for her actions that day. This shooting and another one a few months prior prompted Chief Morris to change the duty ammunition carried by officers. The pure lead bullets fired by the officers in these two shootings did not perform according to expectations. Morris changed to jacketed, hollow-point type ammunition. This gave the officers more of an edge in violent confrontations.
Chief Morris created the Crime Scene Search Unit (CSSU) in 1974. Several officers were selected for specialized training, including crime scene processing and evidence collection. Prior to the creation of the CSSU, all evidence collection and processing was done by the detectives. This change would free up the detectives to work more cases and interview more witnesses. Beginning in 1974, protective shields and shotguns were installed in the police cars. Previously, the officers would have to put the suspect in the front seat beside him or her, no matter what the crime or incident. The shields gave the officer more protection during transport, and the shotgun provided additional firepower when needed.
In 1975, the Police Department acquired a helicopter through a federal grant. Officer D.W. Adkins, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, would fly the helicopter during the day. The helicopter proved beneficial in the search for stolen vehicles and robbery suspects. The helicopter would be in use until November of 1980 when the helicopter slammed into the hangar prior to takeoff, causing extensive damage. Another officer, who was also a Vietnam pilot, was at the controls. He and a passenger escaped the situation with only minor injuries.
Also in 1975, a secret investigation took place looking into the activities of two officers suspected of having ties to some silver burglaries in affluent neighborhoods. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) supported this investigation, which lasted for three years. In 1978, both officers were arrested in Greensboro, NC. One had previously resigned, and the other had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. During this time, patrol officers were checking the homes of vacationing families. It was revealed that these two officers were supplying information to a professional gang of criminals, including vacation length, layout of the residence, best times to enter the home, etc. Both officers were tried and convicted. This was extremely embarrassing for the hardworking, dedicated men and women of the Danville Police Department.
A K-9 unit was created in 1975 with the purchase of four dogs. The officers and their K-9s were specially trained to work together in tracking and handler protection. In later years, the program progressed to include narcotics and crowd control. In 1980, an auxiliary unit was formed in which volunteers would undergo police training. This unit would prove to be invaluable to the department and is still in existence today.
In the spring of 1981, Sergeant C.L. Morris, Chief Morris's brother, suffered a heart attack while on duty in the office. His unexpected death was a stunning blow to the department. In 1982, allegations of evidence room improprieties and other violations surfaced. This led to an investigation by the Commonwealth Attorney's office, which concluded in the summer of 1983 and resulted in the termination of Chief Morris and another officer. Both the chief and the officer would be exonerated and reinstated through grievance hearings over the next several years. During the chief's absence, the assistant chief ran the department.
In 1984, a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was formed with selected officers who underwent specialized training in weapons, building searches, hostage situations, etc. Although several officers had attended training with automatic weapons in the mid-1970s they were not a formal unit to be utilized in emergency situations. The SWAT team has proved to be invaluable in many dangerous situations in which a patrol officer would be under-equipped to properly handle. In July 1987, approximately 20 new officers were hired at one time. This was due to the upcoming annexation into the county, which would go into effect on January 1, 1988. These officers completed their training and were prepared to work by January.
In the summer of 1989, Chief Morris outfitted the department with 9mm semi-automatic handguns. This gave the officer more firepower and additional ammunition. Previously, the officers were carrying six-shot .38 caliber revolvers. This switch was badly needed as the war on drugs increased in intensity. The need for the highly addictive drug cocaine was for the most part the reason behind many robberies, larcenies, and assaults committed in Danville.
Community Policing and the Contemporary Police Department
As the department entered the 1990s, the concept of community policing came into play. In 1993, 12 officers were hired to create a walking patrol unit. This unit would target troubled areas of the city and would be based out of the Green Street Park Recreation Center. Two additional precincts would later be established on the north side of town to aid these officers in their work. This unit would perform their community policing duties using bike patrol, horse patrol, and foot patrol. The citizens in these areas tremendously supported this concept. The unit would be utilized over the next few years to cover functions throughout the city such as concerts, festivals, etc.
During the execution of a search warrant on November 21, 1996, the reality of the dangers of police work were once again brought home. As the police entered the home of a drug suspect on Moffett Street, Officer D.L. Haley was shot through the throat. Fortunately, Haley recovered from the near-fatal wound and returned to duty. The suspect was arrested at the scene, and although he was not tried locally for shooting Officer Haley, the commission of this violent crime was used to enhance his sentence after his conviction on related federal drug charges, for which he received a life sentence.
1995-1996 proved to be a difficult time period for the department. Hurricane Fran came through and caused considerable damage, Officer Haley was shot, and two officers would be buried within 72 hours of each other, both of whom succumbed to cancer. A blistering hot summer, and a winter that plummeted temperatures into the low teens and near zero on many nights, coupled with more snow and ice than average also posed a challenge for the men and women of the Danville Police Department. December 2001 produced another tragedy for our department. Captain C.I. Slayton died from a massive heart attack. Slayton was well-liked by all, and his loss was felt throughout the department.
As the department entered the 21st century, significant changes were in store. Chief Morris retired in the spring of 2003 after 32 years as chief and 44 years in the department. Five other senior members of the department would make the decision to retire, some with over 40 years of service. Philip Broadfoot was brought in from the Waynesboro, Virginia, Police Department to be sworn in as Chief Morris's replacement. Just as Chief Morris had done in 1971, Chief Broadfoot went to work reshaping and restructuring the department. He re-instituted the ranks of corporal and sergeant and within six months had made promotions to fill these ranks and selected replacements for the positions vacated by Morris's command staff. Chief Broadfoot obtained thousands of dollars of grant money to upgrade equipment and uniforms. Much emphasis has been placed on training, allowing officers to be better prepared for the many different situations they may encounter.
On the night of November 10, 2005, Officer Courtney Dickerson, a 15-month member of the Danville Police Department, was headed from a domestic call to an alarm call when he ran off the road in a turn on Halifax Road and died from the injuries he sustained in the crash. Officer Dickerson was only 24 years old. He was a dedicated officer with a lot of promise, and he will be missed. Officer Dickerson's name was added to the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial in 2006.
The Danville Police Department has progressed considerably over the years in its focus and mission. The department currently employs a diverse mix of 137 officers, including African-Americans and women, some of whom hold the ranks of deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, and corporal. The Police Department is made up of dedicated men and women who will continue to serve the citizens of Danville professionally and honorably through "deeds not words" - our department motto.
The Danville Police Department would like to thank Officer Robert D. Hamilton Jr. for his tireless efforts in compiling this historical overview.