Milwaukee Police Historical Society preserves the finest's past
Hard as it is to believe, the Milwaukee Police Department has no records of the bomb that exploded in the Central Station on Wells and Broadway in 1917, killing nine policemen and a civilian woman. Nor do they have personnel files from the department's early history.
The variety of badges, hats and uniforms has not been preserved since the department's official inception in 1855.
If you're looking to write a history of the MPD, good luck.
But, thankfully, some of Milwaukee's finest are committed to reclaiming the department's history and preserving it for the future. At the forefront of the movement is Capt. Stephen Basting, who is one of the point men for The Milwaukee Police Historical Society, based at the Fire and Police Academy at 6680 N. Teutonia Ave.
"The Milwaukee Police Historical Society was established to protect, preserve and educate regarding our past," Basting says.
"Although the society was officially chartered in 1996, it really started in the 1980s when a couple of sergeants and officers assigned to the police academy began to squirrel away items of historical value to the Milwaukee Police Department. Unfortunately, a lot of written history and records were destroyed to make space without thought of preservation."
But Basting is obsessed with it. Call Basting and he'll happily lead you down to the cramped, windowless basement room at the academy that holds the society's current, and growing inventory.
And he'll tell you about his hours spent on eBay trying to score all kinds of items from the MPD's past. Some of the items he pays for out of his own pocket.
The day I visited, Basting -- and Sgt. Fred Tice, who leads the force's mounted patrol -- was beaming with pride over the 1920s Milwaukee Police Department hat he had scored on eBay at 40 percent below the minimum bid. Sometimes, when people hear why Basting is interested the items up for auction, they see the value of the society's work and soften up.
The problem for the society is that at the same time that other cities were divesting themselves of the written record -- New York, for example, dumped its crime scene photos and other municipal records into the East River -- Milwaukee's own Chief Harold Breier was also cleaning house.
So, it seems a little ironic that one of the most visible items in the storeroom is a portrait of Breier. But there are also lots of other things, too. Racks hold rows of uniforms, boxes are filled with old photos and papers, there are badges, buttons, hats and an amazing old police call box that was found in a storage room under MacArthur Square. The society recently had the box restored and is looking for a place to display it.
"Although much written history was lost, the society has preserved many items ranging from uniforms to badges to old style radios to photos most used by officers of our past," says Basting, proudly.
"Current members of the Milwaukee Police are aware of our existence and will call or drop off items for our collection. Many times however we receive calls from family members of deceased members wishing to donate items. Some of our most valued possessions belonged to our first chief, William Beck dating back to the mid-to-late 1800s."
Many of the most special items -- and those most interesting to the general public -- are on display in two long rows of display cases that line a corridor on the first floor of the Fire and Police Academy and the public is invited to come in and see those during normal business hours.
In the meantime, Basting and his fellow society members -- who are always eager to help researchers and the curious -- are continuing to collect.
"The society is always on the lookout for items able to be linked back to our department," Basting says. "Especially the original 'star'-style badges."
If you have items to donate, would like to be come a member or would like to make a cash donation to the society, it is a non-profit organization, so your donations are tax deductible.
But, the real value is in helping Milwaukee hang on to its history.
Contact Capt. Basting at SBASTI@milwaukee.gov.
My grandfather was with the department back in 1917 to 1941 or 42 and then he moved to California and joined the Los Angeles department. I have one of his badges from Milwaukee and some pictures. I'm wondering if the Police Historical Society will have old papers that might show my grandfather personal data, like the date he and my grandmother's marriage date and the date he retired. He was part of the motorcycle force and I think also had a cycle with a side car, at least I have pictures of one.
Nice article. Fred and Steve do a great job on this endeavor. Keep up the good work guys!
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