Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner. (submitted)

Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson: Top cop resignations not new to Victoria PD

At age 74, Harry Sheppard was still on the job—as gaoler at the city lock-up.

At age 74, Harry Sheppard was still on the job — as gaoler at the city lock-up.

“There must be a hex on that police chief’s office.” —Letter to the Times-Colonist in response to Frank Elsner’s recent resignation after months on suspension on allegations of misconduct.

In fact, there’s historical precedent for this latest interruption of chief constable’s office in the VPD — going back as far as 1899. That’s when Chief Henry ‘Harry’ Sheppard (1888-1899) was driven to resign despite an exemplary record, remarkable personal popularity and wide community support.

It was Sheppard’s love of his fellow man, as the late James K. Nesbitt, one of Victoria’s leading historians, put it, that brought about his downfall. Although it seems to have been fairly common knowledge that Sgt. John W. Walker often drank while on duty, his proven police skills — and a wilfully blind Sheppard — saved his badge for some time.

But things hit the fan in October 1899 when another of Walker’s personal relationships with Julia Lacoste, a Chatham Street prostitute, became known. He’d charged her with keeping a bawdy house; she testified in court that he’d assaulted her and Chief Sheppard suffered collateral damage when it came out that he hadn’t reported the sergeant for tippling while on duty.

He admitted that he’d known of the sergeant’s drinking but had never seen him drunk. He’d “remonstrated” with Walker and had reported him to the police commission during a previous mayor’s term of office. Walker had been reprimanded. But the chief hadn’t reported him to the current commission for subsequent lapses “out of respect for his family and in consideration of his pronounced abilities as a police officer”.

Sheppard said he considered Walker to be one of the best constables on the force and one of the best criminal investigtators he’d ever seen in his life.

That said, he obviously regretted his loyalty, accepted full responsibility for not having reported Walker to the present commission, and summed it up by saying: “I tried my best, and my only fault was that I was a little too kind.”

For Sgt. Walker it meant dismissal; for Chief Sheppard his resignation for failure to maintain discipline.

Unlike the latest controversies, Sheppard had had the support of city council. Mayor Charles E. Redfern made this plain in a letter of Jan. 10, 1900, upon Sheppard’s stepping down. “This is to certify that Mr. H.W. Sheppard was a member of the Victoria police force for 23 years; 10 years as constable, two years as sergeant and 11 years as chief of police.

“During the whole of that time he was a zealous and faithful officer in the discharge of his duty and [he] has the esteem and respect of all our citizens. On his resigning his position as chief of police at the end of 1899 he was appointed to the position of Indian interpreter, and assistant prosecutor in the police court, which position he now holds.”

Earlier, the Colonist had said: “There will be no disposition on the part of anyone to speak harshly of the retiring chief, whose chief fault lay in his good nature, too great an amount of that estimable quality being a deterrent to the incumbent of such a position. We do not know whether it will be proposed to provide Mr. Sheppard with some other employment in connection with the city, but if there is any available post he would like to have and for which he is adapted, the Colonist would be glad to see him get it.”

The newspaper pointed out that Sheppard’s pay during his 22 years “in the service of the city…has never been great [just $100 per month as chief constable with no pension plan.] … When a man has done police duty for nearly a quarter of a century he ought not to be turned adrift without a thought as to his future.”

That said, the Colonist agreed that Sheppard’s resignation was in order: “In his younger days he was considered one of the most capable officers, and when appointed chief there were few men considered more competent than he. In later years, however, his age has told against him and his greatest fault has been that he was too easy-going.”

Sheppard had already served throughout his career with the VPD as ‘Chinook interpreter’ [a trade jargon widely used by whites and various tribes] in cases involving First Nations people, and also, as required, as prosecuting officer. It was noted that he’d saved the city money by charging only $1 per case when $2.50 was the usual interpreter ‘s fee. The father of two was also known to be a soft touch whose willingness to donate to “every public fund” had undoubtedly reduced any financial cushion that he might have amassed.

There was no lack of applicants for Sheppard’s old job; for $125 per month, 22 candidates, including the winner, Sgt. M. John Langley of the B.C. Provincial Police, responded from around the province.

Sheppard was still popular, too, being affectionately known to younger officers as ‘Dad.’ He also, as of 1909, was the last surviving member of the local police force of the 1860s, which he’d joined after unsuccessfully trying his luck in the Cariboo gold fields. After a further stint in the Cariboo, this one of 15 years, he’d rejoined the VPD and risen to chief.

His job as gaoler ended just four days before his death on New Year’s Day, 1912.

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