George T. Ragsdale (1876-1937)
Great men often are forgotten with time, usually as a result of their humility. George Tilden Ragsdale is, in a real sense, a giant within Kentucky law enforcement, but he is remembered only by a handful in the profession.
A native of Indiana, Ragsdale graduated from Franklin College, attended the University of Chicago and completed his education at the University of Louisville. He first was employed in Louisville as a high school instructor in mathematics and later became a school administrator.
In the late 1920s, Ragsdale became concerned with the lack of formal training provided to police officers in Kentucky, specifically in Louisville. Training at the time consisted of three to four weeks of improvised classes followed by patrolling with an experienced officer and walking a beat for three or four months. Although there was no Kentucky law enforcement training school in existence, Ragsdale was appointed to the newly-created position of director of the Louisville Police Training School.
Ragsdale immediately launched a training-needs assessment and a job-task analysis to determine what training actually was needed to effectively perform the duties of a Louisville police officer. In 1929, he surveyed 96 of the largest cities in the U.S. and determined only 16 departments had any form of police recruit training (averaging three weeks). The most sophisticated basic training program in New York City, devoted 360 hours over a six-week period (10-hour days). Ragsdale then surveyed what duties police officers in Louisville actually performed when patrolling. Producing a list of 188 “tasks performed,” he then developed a formal curriculum for the police recruit school, basic training program of 420 hours over six weeks (seven days a week, 10 hours per day).
Ragsdale’s curriculum included rules and regulations; criminal law; laws of arrest, search and seizure; immigrant issues; interpersonal communications; firearms training; physical fitness; how to patrol your beat; first aid; and report writing. He selected instructors from within the police department to teach the traditional subjects common to law enforcement, but also contracted university professors to teach chemistry (forensics), psychology, interpersonal communications, race relations, writing skills and criminal law.
Ragsdale’s scientifically-based training then addressed two other areas associated with professionalizing police service: civil service and a pension system. Without a merit system, police officers were hired and fired at the whim of politicians, undermining both stability in personnel and the removal of partisanship from the department.
In 1922, Louisville implemented a civil-service merit system for hiring officers and for promotions up to the rank of captain. This reduced turnover in the department by 95 percent and reduced dramatically the political influences typically common within police departments. The testing procedure for hiring officers involved a general IQ test, medical examination, physical fitness test and background investigation. Out of the first group of 318 applicants only 71 successfully completed the process.
With more than 400 officers already on the department prior to civil service, each officer would be required to successfully pass the new entrance examination in order to retain their position. To aid in accomplishing this, night classes were offered at each of the seven districts to help prepare officers for the test. Eventually, all existing officers were able to pass the test and retain their position.
With 446 officers now protected by civil service but not yet formally trained, Ragsdale launched an in-service training program for patrol officers and detectives. Sworn personnel attended weekly training courses (typically one night a week for four hours at a time) over a three year period. Later annual in-service training was implemented, varying from one day of training a month to specific courses at universities.
Ragsdale then turned his attention to creating a legitimate pension system. Up to this point, few officers were able to look at retirement as a realistic long-term benefit of their law enforcement careers. Many officers when hired were middle aged and often worked well into their 70s before having any opportunity to retire.
As an example: Officer Thomas Baldwin was the first Louisville police officer to receive a pension. On August 1, 1904 (he had 31 years of service) he was injured on duty (shot twice) and given a pension ($30 a month and $6 for each child who was younger than 14). He was 65 years old. His pension was taken away from him four years later when he was caught gardening in his backyard. In 1913 at the age of 74 he was given his pension back. He died one year later.
Ragsdale believed all officers should, after serving 30 years, be eligible to retire on a comfortable pension by the age of 55. A major benefit of the retirement system would be a larger force of younger officers who were physically fit, mentally alert and fully capable of doing the job as a police officer. Additionally, the pension system would create a stronger bond and sense of commitment to the police department by officers who could plan a career in law enforcement.
In 1927, Louisville initiated the first true pension system for police officers in the commonwealth. It was based on a 30-year veteran retiring on a pension calculated on half his salary. Ragsdale’s initiative to implement a pension system, coupled with civil service reform, quickly reduced the turnover rate of officers and created a solid foundation for a professional police organization.
On Feb. 8, 1937, after working two consecutive weeks (16 hour days) in the Louisville emergency command center, aiding in overseeing the assignment of resources for the Great Flood of 1937, Ragsdale suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away.
In 1938, as a testament to his legacy, the Louisville Police Department established a tuition-free program at the University of Louisville encouraging officers to pursue a college degree, including courses offered in criminology, forensics, police administration, psychology and criminal investigation.
In 1951, the Louisville program served as the foundation of the Southern Police Institute, which continues today at the university.