Condensing 168 years of colorful Key West Police history into a few paragraphs is a challenge of the first order, so we'll touch just a few highlights.
Since discovery by Ponce de Leon in 1513, pirate occupancy in the late 1700's and early 1800's, and being the center of Florida's first apparent land fraud scheme in 1821, the island has moved through wreckers, smugglers, riches, rags, scandals, hurricanes, wars, cigar-making, shrimping, commercial and tourist fishing.
Municipal Law Enforcement began with incorporation in 1828 and a "Town Marshal"; "jail" was a converted ship's brig at harbor's edge; population totaled 421. In 1900, the Key West Police force numbered some 13 officers.
The first 50 years of "civilization" in Key West saw "only three persons convicted of capital felonies...one of which occurred in the city, and the others on the high seas, two were capitally punished, and the sentence of the other commuted to imprisonment for life."
March 10, 1904, Key West recorded its first officer killed in the line of duty. Policeman Clarence Till responded to a fight involving half a dozen or so men. They resisted arrest, overpowered Till and took his gun. He withdrew, borrowed 2 pistols, returned, was shot several times, and died 10 minutes later.
The suspect was apprehended, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. Seven months later, the Florida Supreme Court not only overturned the case and returned it for retrial, it ruled he could only be tried for manslaughter. Convicted, sentenced to a year in jail, let out on work release to the fire station; he was soon arrested for robbery and arson. Convicted and sentenced to 13 years; he escaped and went into hiding, only to be murdered himself in 1910.
In the 1970’s, Key West was slowly becoming a popular place for visitors. Along with the influx of visitors came the need for new and progressive methods of policing. Changes were slow to come about however; many resisted efforts to become a more progressive police agency. Over the next several years, their reluctance would eventually lose out to innovation and technology - ingredients necessary to meet the demands of modern day law enforcement.
December 18, 1975, the Key West Police Department recorded its second officer killed in the line of duty. Norman Alvin Drew had been on the job just 3 months when his Police motorcycle crashed and he was fatally injured.
In 1980, world attention focused on the exodus from Mariel, Cuba. Key West became a crossroads - a jumping-off point for rescuers, and an entry point for many, if not most of the refugees. The Key West Police were suddenly faced with maintaining order in the midst of an influx of people and traffic. Federal agencies were officially responsible for the processing of refugees, and the handling and storage of boats.
The 1980's were perhaps the darkest years in the history of the Police Department and the City. It was thought by some that the drug smuggling trade became such a condoned way of life for many in Key West that even the island's establishment had in one way or another been touched by it. The Miami Herald Newspaper began running a series of articles on Key West, drugs, corruption, and the "law unto themselves". The spring of 1985 saw the Key West Police Department rocked by the infamous "BUBBA BUST", when federal, state and county law enforcement officers came into the city to make federal drug-indictment arrests.
In 1987, with the hiring of its first FBI Academy graduate as Police Chief, Key West began moving into a new and professional era, building credibility with other agencies and the public.
November 14, 1989, KWPD came very close to adding two names to those killed in the line of duty. Detectives Hammers and Allen, working undercover narcotics attempted to arrest a suspect; a scuffle ensued and suddenly the suspect shot and wounded both officers - Hammers critically. Although down, both officers were able to return fire and the suspect went down. Hammers and Allen recovered and returned to active duty; Hammers would rise to Sergeant, while Allen went to motorcycle patrol.
In 1991, Community Oriented Policing was introduced. A more practical approach to law enforcement was to provide those in the community with the means to eliminate elements that spawn criminal activity. With fewer environments that nurture criminal activity, the less crime there is for police to combat. The days of fighting crime by "thumping heads" and seeing how many people could be arrested, were being replaced by Officers educating youths in our schools, Officers attending community and neighborhood civic meetings, and innovative ways for Officers to get out into the community to take a more personal approach to helping our citizens and visitors with their problems.
City Manager Julio Avael recently managed the Police Department while a nation-wide search was conducted for a Police Chief. Avael formed a "Transition Team" made up of a cross section of sworn and non-sworn Police Department employees, self empowered to address issues which affect them and their police department. Although a new police chief was eventually named, this innovative process, with some variation, continues today.
Over the past several years, Key West has emerged into a progressive and prosperous tourist community. People from all over the world come to enjoy our warm tropical climate, our many festivals, and our laid back way of island living; feeling comfortable in our community of diverse cultures and lifestyles.
Under the guidance of the City Manager, his advisors and Department heads, we are continually striving to make Key West a beautiful and safe city to live and visit. Our city’s government and its employees endeavor to provide friendly and quality services to Key West’s citizens and visitors… our customers.