Dayton Police Chief Rudolph Wurstner: A career contending with world wars, Prohibition and gangsters

As a 21-year-old patrolman, Rudolph Wurstner started his career at a time when the Dayton police department had only 70 officers and two horse-drawn patrol wagons.

In 1902, he carried a whistle and nightstick and wore a Bobby-style hat as he kept watch on West Third Street near the Wright Cycle Shop.

The young patrolman’s career would last 47 years, following a timeline that spanned two World Wars, the Great Flood of 1913, Prohibition, the gangster era and the Great Depression.

“From the time the Wright brothers flew the first plane until the start of the Cold War, he was on the police department,” said Steve Grismer, a retired Dayton police officer, board member and historian with the Dayton Police History Foundation, Inc.

Today, 70 years after Chief Wurstner retired, Grismer recalls “listening to the old-timers” talk about Wurstner when he entered the police academy in 1976. “You just knew he was one of the most respected police chiefs in the history of the Dayton police department.”

Wurstner brought cutting-edge ideas to the department studying jiu-jitsu in New York City and teaching self-defense to Dayton’s police officers at a time when there was little police training.

“Most of what a police officer learned was when he was issued a whistle, a badge and a baton and thrown out on the street,” Grismer said. The program was so successful he would train military personnel at McCook Field during World War I.

Wurstner became the chief of police in 1925, ushering in a new era of professionalism to the department. The previous life spans of Dayton police chiefs were just two to four years. Most of his predecessors were “unfit for command” and resigned or were forced to resign.

“He was a police chief that worked the streets even after he became the chief,” Grismer said. During his first year as chief, he arrested a murder suspect who shot two of his officers. In the twilight of his career, he was on the scene during the violent three-month Univis Lens union strike in 1948.

To combat crime during the Prohibition and gangster era, Wurstner increased the size of the police arsenal, adding modern weaponry, bullet-proof steel shields, and in 1930 an armored car called the “Bank Flyer,” a customized Cadillac with impenetrable tires, bullet-proof glass, a reinforced bumper and radiator shields and special racks to hold automatic weapons.

Wurstner’s forward-thinking ideas payed off when a notorious gangster was nabbed in Dayton. In 1933, a tip came in about a suspect’s location and automobiles recently outfitted with one-way radios — the latest in technology — were swiftly dispatched to a boarding house on West Fifth Street.

Inside, John Dillinger was captured with four pistols, $2,600 in cash and sacks full of carpet tacks. The police said the tacks were to be scattered over highways to puncture tires of autos in pursuit.

Wurstner was police chief for 10 years when he became the most senior metropolitan police chief in the nation, earning him the title, “The Nation’s Dean of Police Chiefs.” He retained that position until his retirement in 1949. “A book, and a big one, could be written in praise of his services to Dayton,” wrote the Dayton Journal Herald.

Chief Wurstner died 50 years ago on July 12, 1969.

“He never lost sight of his roots or the day-to-day dealings police officers have with the public,” Grismer said. “He was one of them.”

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