History of the Bristol Tennessee Police Department

On February 22, 1856 the state legislature passed an act incorporating the town of Bristol Tennessee. On May 1, 1856, the first election was held and Bristol’s first police officer, constable P.A.J. Crockett was elected. Crockett served through a difficult time. He was succeeded by Thomas P. Reed on April 10, 1858. A little over three months later, Mr. Reed resigned and was replaced by William A. Irvin. Slightly over two months later, Irvin resigned and P.A.J. Crockett became constable again, but only for about four months. The job was then turned over to Peter Kesner on January 24, 1859. On April 7, 1859, Eli Marsh was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of Mr. Kesner. It is known that at some time during those early years, Mr. Thomas W. Farley and J. Austin Sperry briefly served as law enforcement officers. According to information handed down, the general lawless condition on the town and its resultant constant threat to life and limb, coupled with frequent criticism by a fearful and insecure citizenry, caused this great turnover in the “justice department”.

Others known to have served as constables during the earlier years of Bristol Tennessee, were E.D. Rader, who served through most of the Civil War period; D.F. Bailey, a returned Confederate veteran who took the office in 1866 (he later served as a street commissioner) J.W. Meek, J.C. Hammer, and John W. Emmert. 

On Saturday, November 9, 1861, Charles Robertson Vance offered a resolution to establish a night watch or police. On the first Monday in each month, the town constable was to appoint sixty-three persons who lived within the corporate limits of Bristol Tennessee, to be on stand-by call to serve whenever the said constable thought it necessary. This may have been a measure to cope with added dangers during the Civil War period. 

Perhaps it should be noted that the “justice department” was not above scandal in those days. An early constable resigned because of a morals charge that was leveled against him by the foster parents of a teenaged girl. However, the town must have been rather forgiving; within a short time he was elected to the office of alderman. Much later a constable saw a chance to make a few extra dollars. An ordinance had been passed stipulating that any livestock found wandering in the street would be impounded and that one dollar must be paid to the constable in order to obtain release. (The constable was allowed to keep the dollar as compensation for his trouble.) This particular constable went about the darkened street opening lot gates and allowing livestock to escape. He immediately impounded the livestock and another dollar was his! In time he was caught, but disgrace seems to have been his only punishment, although in this case, the town was not so forgiving. Eight years later he ran for another office and received only three votes. 

The office of constable was finally replaced by a regular police force around 1890. H. Chal Caldwell served as Chief of Police until 1900. Caldwell was succeeded by Samuel L. Odell who served over a six man department until December of 1918. 

One of the most talked about criminal cases in the history of the Bristol region was that of Grat Walk, a Bristol policeman, who shot to death another policeman, Houston Childress, on State Street at midnight of February 7, 1903. Walk escaped while in jail awaiting trial an seven years later was identified as a fugitive while living under another name in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Bad feeling existed for some time between the two men when Walk, a member of the Bristol Virginia police force and Childress, a Tennessee policeman, met near the corner of Fourth and State Streets. A quarrel followed and Walk fired two fatal shots into the body of Childress. He then crossed into Virginia and was hiding a week before giving himself up to authorities. 

Ordered held to court without bond, Walk was placed in jail at Blountville, in charge of Sheriff William O’Dell. He gained the confidence of officers at the jail by good behavior and by helping them thwart a jailbreak. Then one night he complained of feeling sick and was allowed to step outside the jail. It was the last to be seen of Grat Walk for seven years. An indictment was returned against him by a Sullivan County grand jury May 26, 1903, charging first-degree murder. 

Circulars sent out by Police Chief Samuel L. O’Dell, carrying a description of Walk and announcing rewards totaling $750, caught up with him in the hands of officers of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, early 1910. He had been in the west for several years, most of the time as a merchant policeman in Spokane, Washington, under the alias of J.H. Howard.

Walk was tried before Judge T.A.R. Nelson of Knoxville. The defendant contended that Childress was drawing his revolver and that he fired upon him in self defense. Two witnesses for the defense testified they heard Childress threaten to kill Walk.

Key witnesses for the prosecution were Charles W. Porch of Knoxville, who was a local policeman at the time of the killing, and H.W. Reynolds, both eyewitnesses. They testified that Childress made no move against Walk before he was shot. Others testified to finding Childress’ revolver in his pocket and that not a bullet was fired from it. 

Walk was found guilty of second-degree murder. It was learned later that ten members of the jury stood for murder in the first degree and tow for murder in the second, and an agreement was reached on a verdict of 20 years in the penitentiary. Walk was released from the penitentiary after serving a part of the sentence and was later killed in a grade crossing accident in a western state. 

In the 1930’s W.J. “Bud” Rogers was appointed Chief and served until 1959. During the fifties the Department had only three cars and most officers walked. In the Downtown business district call lights were installed on some of the buildings, controlled by a switch at the police station on 8th Street. When an officer was needed, the light was turned on and the officer called the station by phone to see where he was needed. 

 Another unusual arrangement during that time was a contract between the Police and the local taxi companies. If a police car was not available to answer a call, a taxi could be summoned to pick up an officer and transport him to the location of the complaint.