The History of the Oneonta Police Department

Oneonta, as an incorporated village, dates back to 1848. It was a fairly quiet village, and it wasn't until 1875 when Oneonta's first policeman was appointed, when George W. Behan was named night watchman and police officer for a five-month period.

The first full time police officer was A.C. Wolcott, appointed in 1880, at a salary of $35 a month.

Prior to this time, any police or law enforcement came from the Otsego County Sheriff, or perhaps local volunteer constables. Firefighting had been essentially all-volunteer until a first fire company was formed here in 1876.

As Oneonta's population grew in the 1860s and 70s, it became a regional center of non-agricultural commerce.

People would make regular visits here to do their "trading." Some were hardy, rustic souls who came here for a good time. They raced horses, got liquored-up and with regularity got into brawls.

The fighting became such a chronic problem that a jail was built in 1873 in an area behind the site of the former Bresee's Kitchen and Furniture Store. That jail burned down in 1882 and was replaced by a stone structure.

The addition of street lights and patrolling constables probably moderated the brawling.  The community's police protection gradually increased during the intervening years, until it was necessary to designate Wilbur F. Bradley as police chief. He was succeeded in 1896 by Charles E. Dibble, who headed a four man department after serving as an officer since 1892.

The first non-commissioned officers of the department were appointed during the regime of his successor, Thomas Blizzard.

When his successor, Frank Horton, retired in 1941, the authorized strength of the department was 14 men.

By the 1950s, the police department, in addition to its work of crime control and prevention, got more into traffic control and enforcement of traffic regulations.

In the community, the Oneonta Police Department was well known for their annual Policemen's Balls from the 1940s through early '70s. These were formal occasions, held at the Oneonta Armory, and always featured a big name band, such as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Stan Kenton, to name a few.

Some interesting "firsts" have taken place in the last few decades. The first African-American officer, James Howard, joined the force in 1975.  In 1980, Debbie Stiefel, the first female police officer joined the department.  The first bike patrol began in September 1991, with patrolmen Steve Havens and David Watson.

During the Clinton administration, officer John Wycoff joined 96 other police officials from around the nation on the South Lawn of the White House, to be honored for an act of bravery. Wycoff saved two people from a capsized canoe in the Susquehanna River in April 1993.

In the late 1990s, the Police Department transitioned from the old style revolvers sidearms and speed loaders to the industry standard Glock pistols.  In the early 2000s, the Department began utilizing Criminal Summons’ as an available substitute for minor violations which would have otherwise required time consuming in-custody arrests.  The employment of a full time parking and animal control officer was instituted during this time period as well, and the old carbon-based paper parking tickets were replaced with tickets that are now written with the use of digital parking ticket writers.  In 2006, the police department incorporated in-car computers to complete accident reports and traffic tickets via the utilization of the TRACs proprietary software. 

In the middle of 2011, the Police Department incorporated new technology to help reduce crime with the implementation of a 16 camera high definition downtown monitoring system.  Additionally, in this year the Department transitioned to black and white patrol cars as a demonstration of respect and commitment towards unbiased and traditional community policing methods.  In 2012 the police department’s special response team began monthly training and garnered a standard issued uniform with improved equipment and higher levels of tactical training. 

In 2013, Tasers with cameras were instituted for members of the patrol division as a tool to improve the safety of the officers and the public during potentially violent encounters.  Additionally, the patrol members were provided with significantly higher levels of in-service training in legal issues, use of force, technical training, sensitivity training, tactical based training, and scenario-based training to assist in creating a better and more professional response to all calls for service to the Oneonta community.

In December of 2014 the Oneonta Police Department achieved the distinction of becoming recognized as a NYS fully accredited police agency by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.  This recognition places the Department as an elite law enforcement agency in terms of its operation and administration.  In 2015, the implementation of a program for body worn cameras began and in service training was expanded to include a refresher for Emergency Vehicle Operation for all sworn members.   

In 2019, the City enhanced the capabilities of their in car computer system to allow for a direct network connection to Dispatch.  This was made possible by the newly implemented AT&T FirstNet program.

In 2020, the Department added in-car video recording.  Secondary to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual arraignments were implemented and continue to be in use.

The Oneonta Police Department has come a long way from the days when a police officer was considered mainly in the light of a night watchman. 

Sources: The Oneonta Daily Star, Oct. 26, 1953. Various clippings from The Daily Star from the 1970s through '90s. Excerpts from "Oneonta: The Development of a Railroad Town," by Eugene A. Milener.  Institutional Knowledge by command staff of the City of Oneonta Police Department 1990s through 2015.