Political meddling led female officers to resign from Laurel Police in 1955

In 1955 a political dispute over the budget for the Laurel Police Department resulted in half of the police officers resigning from the force. This incident was even more unusual since all of the resigning officers were women who had been hired originally as crossing guards, but had been given full police powers.

The budgets from 1955 seem quaint now, but they sparked a heated debate that was waged in City Council meetings and splashed across the front pages of the News Leader. From 1950 to 1955, the entire budget for the Laurel Police Department increased from $20,000 per year to $29,000.

Part of the increase came in 1953, when Police Chief George Barkman hired five female police officers to serve as school crossing guards. After a six-week training period the women were soon pressed into service to also perform parking meter patrol, mostly along Main Street. Over the next few years, as male officers resigned, the police powers of the women were increased and they were eventually given powers of arrest and were armed, actions characterized as "emergency measures" but which clearly provided the Police Department with a cheaper alternative to hiring new male officers.

The female officers worked their way up to assisting investigations in juvenile, arson and liquor law violations. Some of the women, at their own expense, took police courses at the University of Maryland to qualify for the additional duties. According to the News Leader, “They received no compensation for their school crossing duty but had been paid at the rate of 85¢ per hour for their other police work.”

Both Barkman and his successor, Jack Larrimore, praised the work of the female officers. In one City Council meeting reported by the News Leader, Larrimore "praised the women for the caliber of work which they performed and the amount of work they did for the force on their own time and stated that no formal complaints about them had been registered with him by the Council or anyone else." He also said, "They were not only efficient officers, but their cost to the department was very slight."

However, the female officers became the focal point of contentious budgetary debate. The debate was started by C. Philip Nichols, who was on the City Council in 1953 when the women were hired, but had moved up to the Maryland House of Delegates representing Prince George's County in 1955. Nichols, a long-time resident of Laurel, was still a prominent Realtor here.

Nichols' appearance before the City Council in June 1955 was an attempt to reduce the local police budget and rely more on police protection afforded by the county. His prepared testimony, complete with charts, graphs and statistics, touched off a hornet's nest of controversy, and appeared to make public some personal feuds.

In a recent phone interview, Nichols' son, Laurel resident C. Philip Nichols Jr., who is an associate judge for Prince George's County Circuit Court, remembered the small town atmosphere of Laurel's politics.

"People were always feuding and making up. My father and Barkman later became great friends," Nichols said. He also remembered the female officers from his childhood: "You didn't mess with an armed crossing guard."

Several residents spoke to the Council following Nichols that day in 1955. According to the News Leader, "Rivington Stone, who heads the town's new Civilian Defense Auxiliary Police, and has worked intimately with the town police for the past several months, told the Council that 'one of the assets I purchased when I bought my home here (and incidentally, I bought it from Mr. Nichols) was the quality of the town's police protection. It would have suited me better to have lived elsewhere but with teenagers in my family I was concerned with the quality of police protection and I found that Laurel answered this need. I would be very loath to stay in a town where the main emphasis is on a strict dollar and cents basis.'"

Barkman responded to Nichols' testimony the following week in a front-page letter in the News Leader on Aug. 4, 1955, titled "To the Citizens Of Laurel." It began "Reference Mr. Nichols' attack on the police department budget in last week's edition of the News Leader, I would like to pose the following questions in the interest of the public."

He then asked six lengthy questions that served to question Nichols' motive, such as "What prompts Mr. Nichols at this time to spend so much time and effort in an attempt to 'save money' via the police department when he has just completed a two-year term as Councilman here in Laurel, especially since the additions, in the last eight years, for the police department's expenses in the way of allotted man and woman power, were made during his term with his full approval?"

Buried in the rapid-fire questions, Barkman also ominously asked, "Does Mr. Nichols propose to get rid of the School Crossing Guards?" The female officers had not been mentioned specifically before in any budget discussion. Chief Barkman ended his letter with "Mr. Nichols' actions are paradoxical. Why?"

'Not ... a woman's place'

What happened behind the scenes at that point is unknown, but a month later, on Sept. 1, 1955, the News Leader announced Barkman's resignation. Barkman had been chief since 1948, when he was appointed by Mayor Merrill L. Harrison. Barkman told the News Leader, "that the recent attack on the police department's budget by C. Philip Nichols, member of the House of Delegates and a resident of Laurel, 'made me realize how insecure my position is.' " Later, before the City Council, he expanded the thought: "As far as the individual members of the department were concerned, they did not know whether they would have their job tomorrow or the next day. Nichols was making an attack on the police department and there appeared to be no security in our job."

Larrimore, a lieutenant on the Laurel Police force and Barkman's recommendation as his replacement, was appointed by Mayor Harry Hardingham Jr. a few days later. News Leader reports for the next few weeks described Larrimore's attempts to counter the negative impressions from the public spat. He seemed to be at every community meeting, talking about the virtues of the Laurel Police Department. He complimented the force's female officers to the Laurel Women's Club. "Our policewomen have a real interest in this juvenile work and often use their own money to provide things which they feel the children should have."

The public debated was ratcheted up by Hardingham at the Oct. 10, 1955 City Council meeting. His surprise recommendation to the Council was prefaced with him "stating that he 'disliked to interfere in the operation of the police department' " as reported by the News Leader. Hardingham then proposed changes to the department: "The women who are now doing police work with the department were originally intended as school crossing guards, he said, and recommended that they be relieved of police powers and an ordinance prepared giving them the proper authority and compensation for crossing guard duty alone," the News Leader reported. His other recommendations were administrative.

The City Council approved the recommendation in a 4 to 1 vote.

Three days later, all five female officers resigned, as reported in The Washington Post. Their resignations left the Laurel Police Department with a roster of six men, including the chief.

The News Leader Oct. 20 had the story on the front page. Included were extensive passages from the letter of resignation: "…we have been reprimanded and rendered ineffective by the action of your august body on Monday last and that we have been relieved of our police powers without cause. … You have had the rudeness to spread our fate all over town without even showing us the common courtesy of officially informing us of your action. …" The letter was signed by officers Rose Mary Walker, Gladys V. Allen, Clara H. Tester, Marjorie M. Hagan, and Mary A. Wesley.

Hardingham offered the News Leader reasons for his recommended changes to the Police Department: "…He recommended the change after he had made a survey of other school crossing guards in the county and in most instances he found they did not have police powers … he had also received many complaints from residents who did not think it was a woman's place to go into bars looking for juveniles and others. … The Mayor and Councilmen had unlimited praise for the traffic direction ability of the crossing guards."

The next week's City Council meeting was held before a standing-room-only audience. Harrison, the former mayor, was the de facto spokesman for those opposed to the change, which was apparently most of the town's residents. As reported in the News Leader, "Mr. Harrison prefaced his remarks by stating that this was 'no opening gun to regain my position' or to 'control behind the scenes,' assuring the Mayor that he had no 'political ambitions.' " (Harrison went on to serve four more terms as Laurel's mayor, from 1964-1972.)

Harrison claimed he had been contacted by numerous people about the situation and that "it is believed that there is a well-organized move to completely demoralize and render ineffectual our police department. He reminded the Mayor and Council that their dissatisfaction with the police administration seemed to stem from 'attacks' … initiated last June by the Hon. C. Philip Nichols … who contended that the police budget here was excessive."

The following questions were asked by Harrison and answered by Hardingham at the City Council meeting:

Harrison: Have the policewomen abused their authority, and, if so, how?

Hardingham: I do not think they abused their powers, but they were doing jobs that policemen should have been doing. A number of times we would find the Chief, Lieutenant, and Sergeant in the Police Station and the ladies on Main Street, not only on meters but taking care of anything that came along, including drunks. We didn't think this was right. Their crossing guard work was excellent. Not once have we denied that.

Harrison: Did the fact that they were patrolling liquor establishments have anything to do with the relief of their police powers? Was any pressure brought to bear by bar owners?

Hardingham: No. No barkeeper has ever called me, but I have had comments from other residents who thought it was 'not becoming' for the women to patrol bars.

Barkman, the former police chief, also answered questions from the Council during the meeting. During a discussion of the "demoralized" police department, Council member Henry Scott talked directly to Barkman: "I always thought a lot of you as a police chief. You admit that Phil Nichols was the prime reason for your leaving the police department. Let me say that Nichols has never approached me. If he did, he wouldn't change my way of thinking. I don't let Phil Nichols or anyone else tell me what to do."

As police chief, Larrimore made his feelings known to the Council: "We need policewomen. We have a juvenile problem in this town. It is not an alarming problem at this time, but it will become one unless I have policewomen to keep it down as they have doing for the past three years. …I feel that if a bar is so rough in this town that a policewoman should not enter it, it should be closed."

Tempers flared when Harrison accused the Council of using the female officers as a "political football." According to the News Leader, that put the entire City Council in an uproar and they shouted that "politics had never played a role in town affairs."

The whole affair was never mentioned again in the News Leader. Presumably, life went on in small town Laurel; new crossing guards, without powers of arrest or weapons, were hired; and old feuds were replaced with new ones.

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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