Heck No – We Won’t Wear Helmets!

On a hot summer night 1904, the Joplin City Council was in session when someone raised the issue of the “dress of the Joplin policemen.”  A simple complaint about enforcing Joplin’s helmet ordinance revealed many of the underlying problems plaguing the Joplin police force.  Like many law enforcement agencies at this time, the Joplin police force was undermanned, underpaid, and overworked.  They were expected to maintain law and order in a city wracked by cocaine abuse, plagued by saloons, riddled with gambling dens, and infested with men ready to fight at the drop of a hat.  Wearing a helmet was of little concern to a member of the Joplin police force.

Cartoon concerning requirement of Joplin Police to wear a helmet.

The mood of the Joplin Police officers were quite the opposite as expressed in this cartoon.

Councilman Kost reminded attendees that the council had previously passed an ordinance requiring police officers to wear helmets and carry a “policeman’s club of certain size.”  According to Kost, few members of the Joplin police force were complying with the ordinance.  The Joplin Globe noted that prior to the ordinance, Joplin police officers were allowed to wear “slouch hats” and very few carried a club.

Councilman Lane shrugged off Kost’s remarks and suggested that the ordinance need not be enforced, but Mayor Thomas W. Cunningham disagreed. Cunningham opined, “the ordinance was not passed for amusement and that it should be lived up to by all policemen.”

One unnamed Joplin police officer who spoke to a Globe reporter proclaimed, “If I am compelled to wear a helmet or lose my position on the force, I will lose my position.  You cannot realize until you have worn one how hot a helmet is.  I wore one when I first went on the force, but will never do so again.  Fired up, the police officer continued, “And as for clubs, it is very foolish for the council to attempt to force a man to carry a club in his hand.  Every time a patrolman makes an arrest he has to drop his club in order to handle his man.”

The real problem, the police officer snorted, was that city council members “want to see a metropolitan police force on a suburban salary. If the council will pay its police force a salary, the city will not only be able to get better men, but the men will have enough money to buy a belt in which to carry the ornamental club.”

A second Joplin police officer agreed, “Not a helmet for me. I wear what I can get.  If the city of Joplin wants me to wear a helmet while on duty the city will have to put up for it as I can’t afford to buy one.”  He continued, “The police force of Joplin now numbers twelve men.  Five men patrol the business section of the city during the day and the same number are on at night.  From noon until midnight there is one man on duty in East Joplin and another at Smelter Hill.  The twelve men are doing the work of sixteen men.  One man on the force walks from Fourth Street to C Street covering six blocks of territory in the toughest section of the city.  There isn’t even a man to drive the patrol wagon yet we must make a showing and wear a helmet and a club.”

Curiously there was no mention of the death of Joplin police officer John Ledbetter who was killed the previous summer by a rock wielding assailant, though a helmet may not have been enough to save his life.  Unfortunately, helmets and clubs were not enough to save the lives of subsequent Joplin police officers killed in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Source: The Joplin Globe