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The St. Paul Police Department reformation of the 1930s

Three developments in the mid-twentieth century converged to bring about the greatest changes in the policing of St. Paul during this period.

Three developments in the mid-twentieth century converged to bring about the greatest changes in the policing of St. Paul during the 1930s. The first was the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933. With the end of Prohibition, mobsters’ primary revenue streams stopped flowing and then dried up altogether, signaling the death knell of what had become known as the gangster era in the city of St. Paul. Reform-minded community groups and public officials came to the forefront, and under a new, progressive administration, the police department began to reshape its image as a “reform” agency. St. Paul was no longer a sanctuary city for big-spending mobsters; the John J. O’Connor Layover Agreement was a thing of the past.

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The second major development was the creation of the first crime laboratory in the state on Oct. 5, 1935, just three years after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established its own lab. The new laboratory improved criminal investigations by using up-to-date techniques and equipment. Under the direction of Dr. John B. Dalton, the new lab could analyze chemicals, examine documents and firearms, and compare handwriting samples and fingerprints, as well as study photographic and microscopic evidence. St. Paul offered the use of its crime lab to surrounding police agencies, including the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA.) whose own forensic science laboratory did not become operational until Jan. 1, 1947.

John J. O'Connor’s chief-of-police badge, used in St. Paul ca. 1900–1920.
St. Paul Police Historical Society
John J. O'Connor’s chief-of-police badge, used in St. Paul ca. 1900–1920.
The third and final development — probably the most important for police administration — took place on June 15, 1936, when the City Charter Tenure Amendment was passed. The amendment changed the process for the selection of a chief of police, thus eliminating the political favoritism of former years. Sometimes referred to as “appointment by revolving door,” the old process had granted the mayor total hiring authority. In the period from 1920 to 1930, 10 police chiefs or acting police chiefs were hired in St. Paul by direct appointment, some with no previous police experience. In the two years prior to the tenure amendment, six chiefs were appointed.

Under the new guidelines, an independent committee established qualifications for the job. It examined candidates prior to an appointment to a six-year term, subject to removal for “just cause.” The police chief now had civil service protection like the kind granted to rank-and-file employees since June 1, 1914.

In July 1935, St. Paul police completed a year-long internal investigation of the department that included wiretapping. As a result of the evidence gathered, the department disciplined several high-ranking officials. On June 5, 1936, the St. Paul City Council appointed Assistant Chief of Police Gustave H. “Gus” Barfuss the city’s commissioner of public safety. Barfuss instituted reforms and lobbied to end the department’s susceptibility to political pressure.

Three months later, Clinton A. Hackert was appointed the city’s chief of police for a six-year term. His appointment followed the guidelines established by the Tenure Amendment four months earlier. Like his friend and ally Barfuss, Hackert was a reformer who fought against corrupt officers with ties to organized crime.

Although officers came to refer to the period between 1933 and 1940 (and later) as “the quiet years,” the implementation and evolution of new units, procedures, and technology left an indelible mark on the department’s operational structure. New squad cars replaced old, high-mileage vehicles. Advances in communications technology increased efficiency and mobility. Like other police departments around the country, the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) introduced new training programs at the entry level and in-service training for those already on the job. Through these actions, the SPPD took significant steps toward becoming a truly professional police department.

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For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.