In the early days, Greensburg had no police force. From 1799 until the late 1880’s, the burgesses, constables and sheriff were recognized as the authorized arm of the law.
Following the close of the Civil War, as the population of Greensburg exceeded 6,000, it was evident the town needed a regularly employed police officer. Joseph Boomer was appointed as the first town officer about 1888. His monthly salary was set at $45.00. A short time afterward John Walthour was called to serve as night patrolman. His salary was $40.00 per month. Jonathan Kistler and William F. Bollinger were appointed shortly thereafter.
Several additional officers were added to the patrol in 1890. That same year council granted the police a pay increase of five dollars ($5.00) per month, and in addition, agreed to furnish them with helmets. It was then that the police force first began to take color. Each of the officers soon patrolled while wearing drab helmets and a blue brass-button coat. Each officer carried a heavy nightstick about 18 inches long of polished wood with a rawhide strap on the handle end and a load of lead on the other end. It was a common, picturesque sight to see these officers standing on the street corners juggling the stick in professional manner, indicating their ability at wielding the club when summary action demanded. Mischievous boys usually were made to feel the sting of the strap end.
When Bunker Hill Borough consolidated with Greensburg in 1894 the police force was increased. John Walthour had resigned and Michael Carroll was chosen to succeed him.
The first borough jail was established in the basement of the old courthouse on Main Street. It was centrally located and convenient for arresting officers. In the late 1800’s, a more spacious facility was provided on North Main Street.
The new lockup, located directly over the North Main Street tunnel, was upgraded and moved a greater distance from downtown. This proved a great disadvantage to officers bent on landing prisoners in the “jug”. Those who had lost their motive powers through too strenuous a bout with alcohol proved to be a real problem. Frequently, the suspect would lie down. Several experiences dragging prisoners up the hill was too much even for the most able police officer, and a new system was adopted.
A one-wheel, two-handled “Maria” (wheelbarrow) was placed at the rear of the courthouse. When it happened that alcohol had the offender down by the time a policeman arrived, the victim was placed aboard. The trek up the hill to the lock-up never failed to attract the attention of both the young and old.
New Police Department & City Hall Building
In 1909, when the Pennsylvania Railroad excavated the North Main Street tunnel, the old city hall and jail were razed. Another and larger building next door and farther north was secured and equipped as headquarters for the town government and the police department. It was dedicated in 1910.
Many times, in the rapidly growing and spreading borough, citizens had trouble in locating a policeman. To solve this problem, council had two call boxes with red lights atop the poles installed on Main Street at the Otterman and Pittsburgh Street intersections. Those in need called the desk sergeant at city hall. He in turn would activate a switch that flashed the red light atop the poles and the police would run to the telephone call boxes to learn what was wanted. The system was satisfactory and more call boxes were erected until a total of 17 webbed the different town wards. Officers were obligated through all kinds of weather to make regular rounds afoot, their calls being recorded by the desk sergeant at City Hall.
The town moved along with satisfactory police service until the coming of the automobile. The first fatal auto accident, involved the death of a pedestrian, and occurred November 22, 1909. It happened on East Pittsburgh Street, near the railroad overpass and in front of the Morris L. Painter residence. A new White Steamer driven by W. F. Overly, struck 69-year-old Robert Forsythe, who was fatally injured. The newly purchased car was on one of its first trips. Witnesses reported the man and two companions were apparently inebriated and walking up the middle of the street. When the car came along, the man became confused, wobbled into the slowly moving auto, and suffered a broken neck.
Eventually, the increasing traffic demanded a cop at principal downtown street corners. It was not long until the city fathers realized than an officer on foot could not match speed with the automobile. As a result, council motorized the police department with motorcycles in 1917. Patrol cars were to be added shortly thereafter.
1910 was a busy year for Chief Boomer and the police department. In April 1910 a South Main Street fruit dealer shot and killed a Crabtree man who on behalf of the terrorist Black Hand group demanded $1,000. Black Hand was a name used by Mafia-associated elements who engaged in extortion.
In December 1910, Police Chief Joseph Boomer made the rounds of 21 reported “houses of ill repute” in the borough, advising them to close in ten days or expect more drastic action. Although the police had little power under then existing law to “enter upon the premises and make any arrest,” the action was strongly supported by the Greensburg Ministerial Association and others.
A January 1911 sweep through opium and whiskey “dives” downtown in January 1911 resulted in 15 arrests. At an opium den at West Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Streets, police found opium pipes, opium, a bed for smokers, and other articles.
From the incorporation of the borough, the police had guarded the town well. Major crimes were few and far between. The officers as a whole performed their duties fearlessly, courageously and efficiently. They realized that over the years fortune had stood them in good stead despite their hazardous occupation.
This period of good luck was not to last forever, for in the dead of night on March 12, 1925, the greatest gun battle ever staged by Greensburg Police took place.
During the very early morning hours a red Cadillac pulled up at the Standard garage next to the YMCA on Pittsburgh Street. The driver got 15 gallons of gasoline and then asked for a quart of oil. When S.L. “Red” Palmer, the attendant, stepped inside the garage to get the oil, one of the thugs shoved a gun in his face and demanded his money-change sack. Mr. Palmer resisted, but was knocked to the floor from a blow over the head with the butt of the gun. Two of the bandits carried him to the rear of the garage where they bound and gagged him.
Robert Hayes, of George Street, a passerby, noticed the commotion. He ran up the hill to Main Street, called to Patrolman Jacob Elpern and the two hurried back to the scene. Officer Elpern asked the stranger for “Red.” He was told “Red” had gone to the restaurant. He inquired of the stranger, “Where do you live?” The reply was “Pine Street”. Elpern knew there was no street in town by that name. The thug started to move toward the door and Elpern, with years of football prowess, made a flying tackle. Both men fell to the floor. When one of the other robber gang came, the man tussling with Elpern said to his fellow bandit, “Shoot”. He then pressed the muzzle of his gun against the back of Elpern’s head and demanded, “Let him up”.
Meanwhile, Patrolman Bryant Wilson was summoned. One of the robbers immediately opened fire at Wilson and pinned him behind a telephone pole, directly across the street. When he peeped, or shoved his gun around to shoot, the bandits peppered the pole with bullets, knocking splinters into his face.
The bandits pushed Elpern toward their car. The one said, “Take him along and throw him out along the road”. The noise of the gunfire aroused roomers at the YMCA from their sleep. Those awakened took seats at windows to view the spectacular battle.
Two of the bandits jumped into the car, both shooting. Elpern still was fighting to free himself when struck by a bullet. As he lay helpless on the sidewalk, the robbers gave the eight cylinder engine of the Cadillac full throttle, turned up Pittsburgh Street zigzagging their car crazily to escape the stream of hot lead pouring from the gun of Patrolman Wilson. The wounded officer, painfully hurt, was taken to the hospital by Dewey Berger. Fortunately, he recovered in a few days.
The alarm was spread and State Policemen Frank Gleason and William Tevlin spotted the car in Irwin. They engaged the bandits in a terrific race. The speed of the bandit car was too great at East Pittsburgh where they were fairly catapulted down the old Wilmerding hill, wrecking their car.
One of the robbers had a slightly crippled leg. He was not fast afoot and was captured. He gave his name as Albert Kanner, of Chicago. He was sentenced to serve from seven to fourteen years in prison. The other two subjects made good their escape and were never apprehended.
In 1926, it became necessary for the safety of pedestrians to install Stop and Go” lights at various intersections. This was something new for motorists and brought a howl of protests. Several well-known citizens flaunted the new ordinance and defied the authorities, declaring nothing would stop them, at least a light hung over the street. Arrests were made almost daily. Many disputed the word of the arresting officer, feigning innocence. These persons were asked to raise their hand and give sworn testimony. Nearly all, rather than take the oath, paid and quietly left the city hall. Eventually, the most stubborn and defiant accepted the Stop and Go lights.
City of Greensburg Incorporated
In 1928 the Borough incorporated into a City with a sixteen-man police force led by Chief George Westover. The new city police force was instructed simply and to the point by Mayor Yont: (1) Not to “bawl out” citizens for law infractions; (2) To cooperate and not carry tales about each other; an earlier problem; (3) Avoid being “boozed up” on the job; (4) Not to shoot craps in city hall; (5) Be broadminded enough to overlook minor infractions; (6) Use common sense in making arrests; (7) Be neatly dressed in uniform with shined shoes; (8) Do no raiding for liquor law violations without a search warrant; and (9) Do not talk to ladies on the street.
From that time until January 30, 1933, Greensburg Police performed their duties without unusual incident. Then, like a bolt from a clear sky, tragedy struck with such force; it threw a pall of gloom over the community. Patrolman Clyde Murtland was killed in the line of duty. Murtland was assigned motorcycle duty. He was a skilled rider and fond of his work. Everybody knew Clyde. His smile won him many friends. It was an honest smile, sincere, wholesome, both penetrating and invigorating.
While patrolling at 3:45 o’clock at the Main and Third Street corner on that fatal day, his motorcycle collided with the back end of a passing truck. The force of the collision threw him over the handlebars, his head striking the curb or a pole. He was rushed to the hospital where an emergency operation was performed in an effort to save his life, but all efforts failed and he died at 4:40 o’clock, little more than an hour after the accident. Murtland was born at Kecksburg, January 2, 1888, and was survived by his widow and two children.
After the shock of this tragedy, the police carried on with no unusual occurrence until “step-in, step-out” bandits surprised John Woodruff at the monument works on West Otterman Street. It was a fast job. Woodruff was forced at gunpoint to open the safe, hand over the cash and surrender the keys to his car, which the bandits commandeered, for their flight.
An alarm was telephoned to the State Police barracks of Troop A. Immediately, the warning was broadcast to all patrol cars by wireless telephone. Trooper Harry F. Anderson and “Rookie” George Donadio, patrolling near Irwin received the flash. In another moment the officers spied the thieves coming. A 90 mile-an-hour race ensued, marked by intermittent gunfire. Trooper Anderson was at the wheel while “Rookie” Donadio manned the guns. It was discovered later, that five bullets had pierced the bandits’ car. The terrific speed of both cars that reached a peak of 98 miles-an-hour was too great to round Cemetery Curve at East McKeesport. There, both vehicles smashed into a stone wall, first the bandits, then the officers, with both cars ending their wild course crashing together.
All three of the robbers were captured with much of the loot recovered and restored to the owner. The trio of bandits were given accumulative sentences totaling about 20 years in the Western Penitentiary.
This and a series of flash holdups elsewhere impressed council that some means was needed to combat this quick-acting banditry and as a result, wireless telephone equipment was installed in all police patrol cars in 1948. This afforded the flash robber little time to make his get-a-way.
By the 1940’s, the city had over 16,000 residents and a nineteen-man police force lead by Chief Walter Hutchinson.
One of the most spectacular and long-discussed murders in city history occurred about 11:20 p.m., April 11, 1947, on Main Street in front of the Barclay Bank and across from the courthouse. Mrs. Theresa Pedicone Daverse, about 35, was shot and instantly killed as a horrified Penn Transit bus driver looked on. Witnesses said that the mother of five children was trying to get away from her estranged husband, who after killing her put his revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. Only a click resulted. He escaped, and the search by city and state police contributed to his later apprehension at Denver, November 18, 1948. Convicted after an early 1949 trial, appeals and other delays prolonged the story until his March 30, 1953, execution at Rockview Penitentiary.
In 1955, a new police headquarters was established at 416 South Main Street. New cells and modern office facilities were among the amenities found when city hall opened on September 9, 1955.
By 1957 the police department had grown to 27 officers, including the Chief. The 1960 census of over 17,000 residents prompted the hiring of three additional officers. In 1968 amidst growing social turmoil and ever-increasing vehicular traffic, six more officers were hired at an annual starting salary of $4,8000. The force of thirty-six officers was lead by Chief Peter Pignetti who required each new officer to undergo three months of basic police training at the Allegheny County Police Academy in Pittsburgh or at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey.
Throughout the years, bank robbers have had little success in outwitting Greensburg Police officers. Through a combination of quick response and aggressive investigations, most have been brought to justice. This was demonstrated on January 22, 1970 when an armed robber was taken into custody as he was fleeing the East Hills Office of the First National Bank of Westmoreland (Southwest Bank).
The bank’s January 23 newsletter boldly proclaimed, “ the fact that several off-duty policemen participated in the pursuit of the suspect contributes to a “feeling of security” of our staff, our Bank and the citizenry of our City.”
At approximately 11:58 a.m., a masked male walked in the front door of the East Hills Office. He proceeded directly across the lobby to the nearest teller opposite the front door and brandished a gun. This is a holdup,” he said, instructing the teller at whose window he was standing to get money from several cash drawers.
He told the other staff members to “lay on the floor” and after taking a sum of money, he left the bank by the same door as he entered.
He walked briskly through the Sears parking lot, “as if looking for a car”. He was apprehended by Greensburg Police while commandeering the car of one Samuel Mumau, Jr., a Sears employee. Police later identified the masked bandit to be Rodger Edward O’Toole, 41 years of age, of 3231 Parkview Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa.
The response of off-duty officers gave raise to the ideal that all officers should be issued a police radio monitor for installation in their homes. It was believed that their ability to monitor activity while off duty would aid in a quick response to serious crime.
It was about this time that a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer was installed at police headquarters. This technological marvel allowed officer to conduct instantaneous computer checks of Penn Dot vehicle registrations and drivers information. In addition, FBI and State Police stolen property, missing persons and wanted persons inquires could be made. The system allowed for point to point teletypes between city police and any other law enforcement agency in the country.
In 1973, Chief Peter Pignetti retired. Earl (Gabby) Johnson was appointed and served until 1975 when he retired because of poor health. From 1975 to 1980, Chief Nicholas Ficco led the department. Civilian police dispatchers replaced police “desk sergeants” and Westmoreland County’s first 911 dispatch center was founded in police headquarters.
During this period of time additional technological advances such as multi-channel mobile car radios with secure communications, radio repeater towers, and scientific breath test equipment was acquired for the department. In the late 1970’s each officer was issued a portable 2-way radio. This was very uncommon for the day and ensured quick police communications for both on-duty and off-duty officers.
In January of 1980 Domenick Felice took over the reigns as Chief of Police. During his term the most national media attention in years occurred on August 1, 1985. On that day city police followed up a tip and unknowingly arrested one of the nation’s ten “most wanted” criminals at a 545 West Newton Street apartment. The fugitive was Bernard C. Welch, who had gotten away from a Chicago area “escape proof” prison.
He was a convicted murderer of a prominent Chicago physician, as well as a master burglar, and was serving a 143-year sentence. In his local apartment hideout was a cache of over $500,000 in valuables stolen in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Going by the name of Robert Wilson, living quietly there with a local girl friend, his BMW auto provided the tipoff. Then county detective Chief Tom Tridico turned an informant’s note over to Greensburg Policeman Paul Burkey. Upon finding the parked car, a state police check showed the license belonged to another car. The National Crime Center in Washington, D.C. found the car had been stolen in a Wisconsin burglary.
Burkey and Officer Joseph Niedzalkoski returned to the address at 3:30 a.m. to make a stolen car arrest. Burkey took “Wilson”, who had guns at his side, into custody peaceably in a bedroom. But Welch had no papers to verify his Wilson identity. The FBI was contacted, and recognized the man’s description as “most wanted.” Fingerprints were sent to local and federal authorities who made a positive identification.
Later that afternoon, federal marshals came to Greensburg and took custody of the widely sought man. But the barrage of calls and visits from news media and law enforcement agencies around the country kept the police busy for a couple of days.
In May of 1986 Chief Felice retired and was replaced by Chief Raymond Attenberger. In short time the police department installed it’s first computerized records system to track all reported criminal offenses. In July of 1986 police headquarters underwent a major renovation that provided expanded office space for the detective division, administrative staff and the patrol division.
In May of 1994 Chief Paul Burkey replaced Chief Raymond Attenberger who retired. Reflecting trends in other cities, the police force was reduced to an authorized strength of twenty-seven officers. In 1996 Chief Burkey oversaw installation of second generation police computer software that greatly expanded the officers ability to query police records. This was also the first time that Greensburg officers would have in-house access to a local stolen property data base and wanted persons list.
In January of 1998, following the retirement of Chief Paul Burkey, Richard Baric was promoted to Chief of Police. That year, cognizant of increases in school shootings, an eight member Tactical Response Team was equipped with modern radios, tactical firearms and ballistic protection.
On April 16, 2001 a joint task force composed of agents from the PA Attorney Generals Office, the Westmoreland County District Attorneys Office and the Greensburg Police Department concluded a 16 month investigation into a $6.5 million cocaine ring that had been operating in Westmoreland County since 1996. In early morning raids, police armed with Grand Jury Indictments and arrest warrants searched for thirty-eight suspects, including the alleged ringleader, Rakyym Heatherington. Twelve of the conspirators lived in the city. This was the first time in recent memory that an entire drug organization had been dismantled in the area.
July 10, 2001 another joint task force concluded a nine month undercover investigation into the sale of various narcotic substances, including OxyContin. In this raid nineteen suspects were arrested, five from the City of Greensburg.