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updated: 8/12/2014 9:01 AM

Urbana police mine their history

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  • Matt Rivers, a detective with the Urbana Police Department, shows a .38 Special revolver owned by the department's police chief in 1933.

      Matt Rivers, a detective with the Urbana Police Department, shows a .38 Special revolver owned by the department's police chief in 1933.
    AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Heather Coit

 
By MARY SCHENK
The (Champaign) News-Gazette

URBANA -- It's hard to believe in this age of instant information, but if you wanted to know who the Urbana police chief was in 1940, you might not be able to find out so easily. A group of Urbana police officers is trying to rectify that.

"I want to put together a department roster that's comprehensive for all time containing dates of service and badge numbers," said Matt Rivers.

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A six-year member of the department, Rivers, 32, is spearheading an effort to put together a picture book and a video of the department's history by this time next year, which will be the 160th anniversary of the city's first marshal.

"There were 400-plus officers who walked the same streets and dealt with the same problems we have now. Our origins are from the 1850s," Rivers said of the police force. "I'm complete from 1855 to 1932 and I feel pretty good about 1966 to the present."

It's that 34-year gap in the middle he'd like help with.

He's getting a hand from two department veterans. Duane Maxey, 55, is the longest-serving sworn officer, still working after 27 years. John Lockard, 66, has been with the department for 43 years -- the first 29 as a police officer and the last 14 as its civilian evidence technician.

They'd like to hear from anyone who might have police memorabilia or information.

"Pictures, artifacts, maps. If someone came out of nowhere and said, 'My grandpa was a police officer and decided it wasn't for him,' we'd like to know that," said Rivers. "We lost lots of information when we moved to this building in the '60s," he said.

All three having been detectives is a boost to the project.

"It's a big giant investigation is what it is," said Rivers, who got inspired to start collating the history while looking at composite pictures of past police officers on the walls of the city building at 400 S. Vine St., U.

For the past four months, he's spent a lot of time in the archives of the Urbana Free Library looking at photos and newspaper articles. He's also consulted with retired Champaign police officers who have collected a lot of their department's history.

"I've always had an interest in what came before me, whether it's family history or police," said Rivers, who recently did research that reunited his father with a sister he hadn't seen in 50 years. "The reward from that was understandably personal but we can all benefit from knowing where we came from. We want to understand it and be proud of it. We want to preserve that as much as we can."

"For us to understand why we do what we do, we have to understand the people who came before us and who they were," added Maxey.

Maxey and Lockard have incredible institutional memory. Rivers said he often finds reasons to go to the evidence room when Lockard is in.

"No matter what, I can tell him something and it will remind him of a story. His ability to recall these things is impressive," Rivers said.

Lockard and Maxey are having fun reminiscing as they conduct videotaped interviews with retired officers, which they hope to edit down and make into a keepsake oral history on which they can build.

"It's so incredibly fascinating. We're not talking about monumental historical events but these are men who are relating life-changing events for them. It's good for them and good for us to hear," Maxey said. "It helps us to keep our perspective. We're not the first men or women to walk down this path."

The interviews require "active listening and a lot of clarifying to make sure we are memorializing it correctly," he added.

"Ray Hutcherson retired in 1995 after 30 years. We were talking with him about the manner in which he learned the geography of the city," Maxey said, referring to a block grid system approach that is still in use today.

"Those fundamentals are the same fundamentals. So many of the things that made the men in our past who they are have been passed on to us," he said.

Lockard said it's interesting to see how different officers recall the same event.

Hutcherson brought up an armed robbery from the early 1980s at a North Cunningham Avenue business where a shot was fired.

"I was there and Hutch was there but I didn't remember Hutch being there. He caught one of the guys and I was with a couple officers who caught the other guy," Lockard said.

Bill Curry, 65, of Philo retired from the department in 1991 as a lieutenant after 18 years.

"It's amazing how much things change. When I started in 1973, I was at a very modern police department with two very modern radios the size of Volkswagens and no computers. If you wanted to run a driver's license inquiry, you had to use a teletype machine that read a tape," he said.

Following his retirement from Urbana police, Curry went to the Champaign police department as a civilian and helped with the transition to mobile data terminals in squad cars. After that, he worked at METCAD, the centralized dispatching agency for local police for 10 years.

"My career (as a police officer) was pretty laid back. I was going through a folder that I have at home. I found things I don't even remember, including a letter of commendation I got for stopping two guys with shotguns who were on their way to Danville to shoot somebody," Curry said.

Narrowing the scope of the project is a struggle for the part-time historians, given the huge amount of information they already have. They are also getting a hand from many other officers, both current and retired.

For example, Rivers said Jim Page, who worked as a police officer from 1977 to 2004, always seemed to have a camera with him.

"He has thousands of photos from accident scenes to standing outside of squad cars. He's a historian," Rivers said of Page, who is now the director of the Urbana-based Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System.

To keep from losing their minds, the detectives-turned-historians have a system for logging in their memorabilia, which includes hand-written arrest log books, badges, the revolver that Joseph Ryan had for the one year he served as police chief in 1933, and photos -- lots of photos.

"We created a case number for the history project and everything that comes in is being entered into evidence. That way we can track it. It's an official investigation and it's open and assigned to me," said Rivers.

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