Dusting off the past at Champaign police HQ

Dusting off the past at Champaign police HQ

CHAMPAIGN — It didn't take recently named Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb long to realize he had walked into a "very sterile environment."

He noticed immediately there was almost nothing publicly displayed in the police headquarters at 82 E. University to show the history of his 152-year-old department.

"I started asking, 'Why is it that way?' Growing up here and living here most of my life, I knew there was a rich history in the organization," said Cobb, hired in March as the department's 15th chief, give or take a couple.

"It's my hope to get our history woven throughout the entire building," Cobb said.

That's all a number of officers, current and retired, needed to hear to kick into high gear their efforts at displaying and more formally recording their past. Some had been collecting history on their own for a number of years and had committed it to storage bins, envelopes and sheds at home.

"I was glad to see that attitude," Zane Ziegler said of Cobb's pronouncement that pictures and artifacts should be displayed where officers and citizens can see them.

Retiring in 2003 after 28 years in patrol, Ziegler has become an unofficial department historian and repository of many photographs and other items that were going to be trashed when the police department moved in 1984 from its former location at 102 N. Neil St., the city building, to its current location.

"Before we moved in '84, we had photos on the wall and a few artifacts. When we moved (to 82 E. University), somebody didn't want anything on the walls. Since then, there had been nothing on the walls except for pictures of Dodsworth, Tatman and one other. It's been one of my goals to get that stuff back in the building," Ziegler said.

Thomas Dodsworth and Robert Tatman were Champaign police officers killed in the line of duty in 1913 and 1967, respectively.

Ziegler was instrumental in pulling together a police department display in 2010 for the city's sesquicentennial. Among the treasures he has preserved are two steel bulletproof shields.

"These are from 1935 or so, a trifold. They were made after the Kansas City massacre of 1933, when four law enforcement officers were killed. Before that, shields were not real portable. This guy patented a more portable deal and we ended up with two. Those are kind of rare. I took one to a national police collectors show in St. Louis in July. No one had ever seen those," said Ziegler, who talks about his police memorabilia as proudly as someone showing off photos of grandchildren.

Also in the collection of stuff nobody really wants in his home but that is really cool to look at are red lights, a foot in diameter, that used to sit atop the corners of the city building.

"They were used to signal the beat officers to get to the station for a call," Ziegler said of the communication system that pre-dated radios.

"They left them up and maintained them until we moved in 1984. When they took them down, Dave Godwin spoke up and said we'll take them," Ziegler said of his fellow retiree, who has done quite a bit of research into the department's history. Godwin was an officer from 1968 to 1998.

"We have a ball and chain from the 1800s," Ziegler said, adding that he found written information about the proper application of the device intended to keep public service workers from running. "If whoever applied them caused bruising, it cost them $10. That was a lot of money in the 1800s."

Other items are handcuffs patented in 1912 with the same mechanism that can be found on handcuffs today; a 1948 blue dress uniform donated by retired sergeant Tom McGuire; a wooden mugshot camera complete with the stool the arrestee sat on and the light used; a flashlight from an officer who was killed in the late 1920s by a passing motorist as he stepped off the trolley on his way to work; and a blotter desk — a tall piece of furniture that the officer stood behind to fill out paperwork.

Ziegler said he and Godwin estimate the desk has been around the department about 150 years, and they'd like to get it refinished.

But that, and even the display of what items they do have, is both "time consuming and money consuming," said Ziegler, who's paid for having pictures printed and glass cases out of his own pocket.

He and the other retirees hope people who have similar interests might donate to the cause, either financially or with interesting items.

One Ziegler is really salivating over is a gun used in the Harris mansion robbery on Nov. 9, 1929.

The posh home of wealthy businessman Henry Harris at the southeast corner of Church Street and Prospect Avenue (later known as Cole Hospital) was the scene of a huge party after an Army-Illinois football game. An armed man stuck a gun in the ribs of a doorman and said he and his three colleagues were playing a joke. Once inside, the men set about robbing about 40 guests of cash and jewelry. One man was able to sneak away from the chaos to call police.

Two patrol officers showed up, and one of the robbers was shot in the back as he tried to run away. He died two days later. The other three bandits got away.

Ziegler said the Preservation and Conservation Association (PACA) has the staircase from the now-demolished home that still has a bullet hole in it. Given the staircase size, he'd prefer to have the gun, which he's been told is in the family of a former Champaign mayor.

On a recent Saturday, retired police officers John Schweighart, Bill Jobe and Tracy Jobe joined Ziegler in reminiscing about everything from being caught in a crossfire with bad guys to the look of squad cars, uniforms, badges, so-called portable radios and miserly wages.

They can talk a long time, even without coffee.

They all agree that historic photos and artifacts need to be in the police department for all to see. Ziegler would also like to see a formal timeline of the department's marshals and police chiefs, many of whom Godwin has already identified. They're not exactly sure what number chief Cobb is.

Godwin and the other retirees believe current officers need to know the department's past, even the ugly stories such as the eight officers fired in 1962 for stealing.

"I like being around the younger officers," said Schweighart, who was on the department from 1969 to 1997. "But they know the Champaign Police Department from the day they started and nothing beyond that. It's important they know the history. My family has a lot of history here."

Indeed. Schweighart's father, uncle, brother, son, son-in-law, brother-in-law and even a couple of second cousins have all served as sworn officers. His daughter is currently a civilian employee.

Tom Frost is a patrol sergeant with 21 years of service. He volunteered to help collect historic photos to display in the building.

"This department is not made up of any one individual. It operates as a well-disciplined team. Having the photos and accoutrements displayed demonstrates to our officers that they are a member of a much larger group of men and women who have honorably served the city of Champaign and its community.

"The photos illustrate the pride the officers had while working for our department and exemplify to our current members that we too should take pride in what we are doing," Frost said.

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