Chalfant: Police layoffs seen as arresting development
The financial decline of the Great Depression began during the 1920s in Pettis County. The railroad strike of 1922 left men out of work; stores and businesses closed as a result. In 1925, the Bank of Hughesville closed. Other county banks began to foreclose on farm mortgages as grain and livestock prices plummeted. In 1926, both the Farmers and Mechanics Bank and the American Exchange Bank in Sedalia closed.
By October 1929, when the stock market crashed, the city of Sedalia had already felt the financial pinch. That summer, the city had appealed to the Sedalia Clearing House for financial advice. The Clearing House recommended curtailing city expenditures and specifically proposed that the police department cut back its budget by reducing the size of the police force.
The budget cutbacks created a problem for Sedalia residents. Sedalia police officers were already overtaxed, being responsible for patrolling the city streets, maintaining the city jail, protecting businesses, and occasionally helping revenue officers raid homes and restaurants serving illegal alcoholic beverages. During the fall, burglars robbed several stores and businesses. Businessmen claimed that inadequate police protection allowed crime to increase.
In September, Mayor O.B. Poundstone responded to the Clearing House’s suggestions by asking three officers to resign. Sanitary officer Roxey Weikal, special officer for West 16th Street John Bowers, and day desk sergeant Mike O’Brien did as the mayor asked. At another meeting, officers Henry Edwards and W.R. Large were laid off.
The Police Committee of the City Council, consisting of chairman Pearl Teufel, and members A.E. Brockman and J.O. Bailey, met the next week and asked that four more police officers — night chief Frank Riley, officer Mike O’Brien, officer Andrew Moerschel (described by the Sedalia Democrat as the “night hot shot man”) and officer Joe Murphy, the “special officer to the mayor” — be laid off in order to reduce expenses.
This request raised a number of issues. Riley, Moerschel and Murphy had previously been named in a resolution charging them with neglecting their duties. At the meeting in which they were laid off, however, the charges were not mentioned and the Sedalia Clearing Houses’s recommendations that costs be cut was given as the reason the men were dismissed.
The Sedalia Democrat noted that these three men were experienced officers. Moerschel had worked for the police department for a number of years, Riley had served on the force prior to Poundstone’s election as mayor in 1928, and Murphy had joined the force after Poundstone’s election.
At a City Council meeting following their dismissal, a delegation from the American Legion asked that Murphy and Moerschel, who were veterans and members of the group, be reinstated. The City Council ignored their request.
On Nov. 19, the Police Committee, following recommendations from the Finance Committee members A.E. Brockman, Dr. F.R. Morley, and A.L. Dickman, announced that the city’s finances had improved and that the officers could return to work.
Mayor Poundstone proposed that Bowers, Edwards, Weikel, Murphy and Moerschel be reinstated and that the council vote in the men as a group. The council refused, and chose to vote on the men individually. By a vote of 7 to 1, with only Fourth Ward councilman Taylor voting in their favor, the council rejected Murphy and Moerschel. The mayor did not offer any other names for the council’s vote.
The Police Committee and the Finance Committee sent a letter to the businessmen of Sedalia detailing the situation. The Democrat printed a copy of the letter on Dec. 2. The letter explained that although the Finance Committee had stated that five officers could be returned to work, Poundstone refused to allow the City Council to vote for their reinstatement.
The statement that Poundstone would not allow a vote was somewhat misleading. It appears that a power struggle between the mayor and council had created an impasse; when the council decided to vote individually, the mayor decided not to allow any further votes.
The letter noted the increase in crime against businesses because “we do not have enough police on the police department.” The letter asked that businessmen attend the council meeting that evening to “present your demand for police protection for which you pay taxes.”
The Democrat noted that the “situation has attracted wide interest.” Of particular concern was the council’s rejection of Murphy and Moerschel, described by the Democrat as “among the best on the force,” and “fearless men … capable of managing any situation that comes to their attention as police officers.” Their quality as officers, along with the suppressed allegations of misconduct, the American Legion’s support of the men, and the attempts by the Police Committee to influence the City Council, caused the Democrat to refer to the situation as a “muddle” with the Sedalia public as the victim.
Nest week’s column describes the contentious meeting between the City Council and the citizens of Sedalia.
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