In the Beginning
“. . . for the preservation of good order and the public morals therein. . . .”
With these words and to these ends, the Police Force of Kingston was created by the Common Council of Kingston on December 20, 1841. From humble beginnings and representing one of the oldest Canadian police forces in existence, members of the Kingston Police have established a long and proud tradition of serving the Kingston community. It is a history that has seen the force sustain itself through the prosperous as well as the hard times that the city itself has endured. It is also an evolving history of steady growth and constant transformation as the force continues to adapt to social changes and embraces developing technology.
To understand the history of policing in Kingston fully, one must first understand the social milieu and the nature of law enforcement in the period leading up to the creation of the force. As part of the Midland District of Upper Canada, Kingston was governed under a centralized authority. Responsibility for judicial, legislative, and administrative matters was in the hands of the Justices of the Peace for the district, who were appointed by the Lieutenant Governor. As well as making rules and regulations for the district, they appointed the High Constable and determined the number of constables for each community in the district. In 1815, four constables were authorized for Kingston. They were elected by the ratepayers and apparently were unpaid. They operated under the direction of the Justices of the Peace and provided, among other things, a response to reported crimes.
In the early 1800s, the population of Kingston was largely transient in nature. The War of 1812 filled Kingston with the soldiers and dockyard workers needed to protect the vital Lake Ontario–St. Lawrence River link. It must have been an especially rowdy and difficult community within which to maintain any semblance of law and order. The four elected constables would have had little power to deal with the frequent disorderly behaviour and the many minor infractions that were common at the time. Following the war, Kingston continued to grow in size and importance as a port, a commercial centre, and a garrison town. This growth was spurred in part by the large immigration of Irish workers required for the building of the Rideau Canal (completed in 1832); the Kingston Penitentiary (commenced in 1834); and Fort Henry, the main portion of which was completed in 1836. At this time, the population of the community was reported to be 3,613.
A review of period newspapers and the activities of the Court of the Quarter Sessions indicates that the main crime brought before the courts of the day was that of being drunk and disorderly. Penalties for more serious offences were harsh. In 1822, they ranged from fines to whipping, standing at the pillory, capital punishment, and imprisonment. For example, for assault and petty larceny, one received a one-month imprisonment and twenty-five lashes; a female keeping a disorderly house received three months’ imprisonment and had to stand twice at the pillory. Into the 1830s, crimes and penalties had changed little, except that it seems that imprisonment on bread and water had become popular, at least with those doing the sentencing. The British Whig reported on April 30, 1836, that a husband and wife had been convicted for keeping a disorderly house and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment on bread and water. Their four children were made public charges during this time of imprisonment.
The role of a police officer in the nineteenth century was not synonymous with that of today. Records of 1826 note that a gentleman named Henry Wilkinson was appointed police officer and street surveyor at a salary of £50 per year. This is the first known record of a paid police officer in Kingston. During the cholera epidemics of the 1830s, constables were required to enforce emergency regulations enacted to control the outbreak. Constables were also required to enforce town rules and regulations covering anything from street paving and repair, slaughter houses, nuisances, inspection of weights and measures, and laws respecting animals. Minor crimes and infractions of town laws were handled by courts where the mayor or a designated alderman sat as Justice of the Peace. In 1840, Samuel Shaw, the High Bailiff, appeared as a witness and to collect the fines imposed. On August 2, 1840, he gave evidence that he had observed I. A. Irons deposit a quantity of shavings on one of the park lots. Irons was fined 20 shillings plus costs. On the same day, Shaw gave evidence that he had ordered William McConnell to clean out his privy after receiving a complaint about the odour. The defendant was fined 20 shillings for failing to comply with this order.