Now What: Arresting Images

Now What: Arresting Images

Answers for the beginner, the befuddled and anyone hitting a brick wall.

Q. Can you recommend research strategies to find photos and records of Philadelphia policemen from 1896 to 1916? I heard a police administrator had all the archived files thrown away in 1985.

A. Although Philadelphia’s pre-1981 police personnel files were indeed destroyed, a variety of records and dockets relating to the years you’re seeking still exist.

For early records, check with the Philadelphia City Archives (3101 Market St., Suite 150, Philadelphia, PA 19104, 215-685-9401, <>). The most abundant records you’ll find there are roll books and roster books. The indexed roll books covering 1854 to 1907 show each officer’s name, badge number or rank, age, place of residence, political ward, assigned police district, date of appointment, and remarks such as removal, transfer, death or resignation. Roster books contain similar information, but cover only 1907, 1911,1921 and 1925. All but 1907 are indexed. The city archives also has more-specialized records, including the Officers’ and Surgeons’ Reports of Sick and Injured (1916 to 1918), New Patrolmen’s Book (1887 to 1895) and Substitutes Book (1881 to 1899 and 1903 to 1916).

According to Philadelphia genealogy researcher Sylvia F. Wilkins, no official photographs were taken of officers before 1953 unless the officers were part of a special unit. To inquire about photos taken after 1953 and for information on officers from 1981 on, you’ll need to write a letter to the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department, 1 Franklin Square, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Include the officer’s name, time period of service and any additional information that could help locate the record, especially if the officer had a common surname. The department contacts you to let you know whether it found a file and then notifies you of the fee for the search.

For photographs prior to 1953, look at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Newspaper and Microfilm Center (215-686-2860, <>) and the Philadelphia Bulletin at Temple University’s Urban Archives (215-204-8257, <>). You’ll find a few pictures online at <>.

A Philadelphia policeman on bicycle patrol poses with his two-wheeler in the early 1900s.

From the December 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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