The City of Key West, Florida

The Southernmost City in th Continental United States


Police Department History

Condensing 168 years of colorful Key West Police history into a few paragraphs is a challenge of the first order, so we'll touch just a few highlights.

Since discovery by Ponce de Leon in 1513, pirate occupancy in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and being the center of Florida's first apparent land fraud scheme in 1821, the island has moved through wreckers, smugglers, riches, rags, scandals, hurricanes, wars, cigar-making, shrimping, commercial and tourist fishing.

Municipal law enforcement began with incorporation in 1828 and a town Marshal; jail was a converted ship's brig at harbor's edge; population totaled 421. In 1900, the Key West Police force numbered some 13 officers.

The first 50 years of civilization in Key West saw only three persons convicted of capital felonies, one of which occurred in the city, and the others on the high seas, two were capitally punished, and the sentence of the other commuted to imprisonment for life.

On March 10, 1904, Key West recorded its first officer killed in the line of duty. Policeman Clarence Till responded to a fight involving half a dozen or so men. They resisted arrest, overpowered Till and took his gun. He withdrew, borrowed two pistols, returned, was shot several times, and died 10 minutes later.

The suspect was apprehended, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. Seven months later, the Florida Supreme Court not only overturned the case and returned it for retrial, it ruled he could only be tried for manslaughter. The suspect was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. He was let out on work release to the fire station, but he was soon arrested for robbery and arson. Convicted and sentenced to 13 years, he escaped and went into hiding, only to be murdered himself in 1910.

In the 1970s, Key West was slowly becoming a popular place for visitors. Along with the influx of visitors came the need for new and progressive methods of policing. Changes were slow to come about however; many resisted efforts to become a more progressive police agency. Over the next several years, their reluctance would eventually lose out to innovation and technology, ingredients necessary to meet the demands of modern day law enforcement.

On December 18, 1975, the Key West Police Department recorded its second officer killed in the line of duty. Norman Alvin Drew had been on the job just three months when his police motorcycle crashed and he was fatally injured.

In 1980, world attention focused on the exodus from Mariel, Cuba. Key West became a crossroads, a jumping-off point for rescuers, and an entry point for many -- if not most -- of the refugees. The Key West Police were suddenly faced with maintaining order in the midst of an influx of people and traffic. Federal agencies were officially responsible for the processing of refugees, and the handling and storage of boats.

The 1980s were perhaps the darkest years in the history of the police department and the city. It was thought by some that the drug smuggling trade became such a condoned way of life for many in Key West that even the island's establishment had in one way or another been touched by it. The Miami Herald began running a series of articles on Key West, drugs, corruption, and the "law unto themselves." The spring of 1985 saw the Key West Police Department rocked by the infamous "Bubba Bust" when federal, state and county law enforcement officers came into the city to make federal drug-indictment arrests.

In 1987, with the hiring of its first FBI Academy graduate as police chief, Key West began moving into a new and professional era, building credibility with other agencies and the public.

On November 14, 1989, the Key West Police Department came very close to adding two names to those killed in the line of duty. Detectives Hammers and Allen, working undercover narcotics attempted to arrest a suspect. A scuffle ensued and suddenly the suspect shot and wounded both officers, Hammers critically. Although down, both officers were able to return fire and the suspect went down. Hammers and Allen recovered and returned to active duty. Both offiCers would rise to Sergeant.

In 1991, community oriented policing was introduced. A more practical approach to law enforcement, it provides the community with the means to eliminate elements that spawn criminal activity. The fewer environments to nurture criminal activity, the less crime there is for police to combat. Officers educate the youth in our schools, attend community and neighborhood civic meetings, and take a more personal approach to helping our citizens and visitors.

Over the past several years, Key West has emerged into a progressive and prosperous tourist community. People from all over the world come to enjoy our warm tropical climate, our many festivals, and our laid back way of island living, feeling comfortable in our community of diverse cultures and lifestyles.

The Key West Police Department continually strives to make Key West a beautiful and safe city to live and visit. Our members endeavor to provide friendly and quality services to Key West's citizens and visitors.