Policing Needham: A Story of Suburban Cops

by Lisa Brems

Much has been written about big-city police departments like NYPD and LAPD. Much has also been written about the Marshals and Sheriffs of the wild west. In contrast, Policing Needham takes a look at the history of law enforcement in the suburban town of Needham, Massachusetts. Local history is a microcosm of national history. So while the names and places in this book may be of particular interest to those with ties to the town, the stories are relevant to anyone with an interest in history and law enforcement.

Needham was incorporated in 1711, and for over 180 years law enforcement was handled by elected, part-time constables, who also collected taxes in addition to working their day jobs.  In 1893, in order to deal with a growing problem with burglaries and arson, the Board of Selectmen hired the first full-time night watchman to patrol what is now Needham Square. Two years later a second night watchman was hired to patrol the town’s other business district in what is now Needham Heights.  The first police chief was appointed in 1912. There was no day shift until 1916.

The book gives considerable attention to the town’s highest profile crime, an Al Capone-era bank robbery during which two police officers were murdered with a Thompson sub-machine gun. The author chronicles the multi-agency investigation, arrest, and conviction of the robbers, who ironically stole the sub-machine gun from a State Police exhibit.

Collaboration with other police departments was emphasized in solving a string of burglaries in which oriental rugs were stolen from homes in several towns including Needham in the 1990s. The criminals were eventually arrested in New Hampshire.

How World World II affected small town American life is another interesting section.  A Japanese lampshade maker on Chestnut Street was kept under federal surveillance.  Civilians kept watch for aircraft in a watchtower on Bird’s Hill. Residents were required to black out their windows and drivers were required to paint the top half of their headlights.

Technology advances have changed law enforcement considerably.  In 1928 several call boxes were installed so officers on foot patrol could contact the station. The station could activate a light and horn on the box to call the officer.  An officer discovering a burglary in progress had to choose to confront the criminal or walk to a call box to request back up. It was not until the mid-1970s that officers carried walkie-talkies.  In the early 1990s, mobile data terminals were installed in police cruisers.

The author summarizes by observing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Communication, equipment and training changed radically during those 90 years, as did crimes. No one was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1913, and no one was arrested for gaming on the Lord’s Day in 2002. Yet, there were a great many similarities. Drunkenness, burglary, vandalism and assault have all remained staples of police work.”

Brems, Lisa. Policing Needham: A Story of Suburban Cops. Orlando, Florida: Rivercross Publishing, 2004. Buy from Amazon.com