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Telling the story of Rome’s police

Waiting to be picked up when the time is right, a volume of Rome and Floyd County history rests high above Randy Gore’s desk at the Joint Law Enforcement Center, distanced from the yellow legal pads linearly organized before him.

With the ebb and flow of investigative work, it’s challenging for Gore to designate any period of his day to what is now a second duty for him: piecing together a comprehensive history of the Rome Police Department.

“I’m having to do this when I have a few minutes on my job that I can take to do it,” said the 22-year veteran, who started his research in December. “Some days I get to work on it and some days I don’t.”

Rome police Chief Denise Downer-McKinney began talking about the project last year, Gore said. Having a fondness for local history and experience in genealogy, he volunteered.

His first task is to fill in the blanks of all the chiefs of police — from the progenitors of law enforcement before the Civil War up to Downer-McKinney and all in between — as well as writing up a short biography on each of them. With his findings there is talk of framing pictures of the local police leaders and showcasing them in chronological order at the department.

But finding information to form a complete timeline of the city’s law enforcement history, specifically the earliest years, may never come, Gore said, as many of the original documents were destroyed when Union Gen. William T. Sherman ordered his forces to set Rome ablaze while withdrawing occupying forces in November 1864.

“There’s a lot of holes that I haven’t filled, and I’m not sure if I ever will,” he said.

However, in what Gore has come across, the intrigue of a city’s past has come to life. He shared a faded black-and-white photograph, pulling it up on his computer in a folder with dozens more, of 12 officers, most of them wearing old-fashioned custodian helmets. It was taken during the mid-1880s, when the police department wasn’t yet in existence and the city was protected under a marshal system.

At the bottom of the image there is a dog spread out before the men’s feet. Gore said that this dog was the first K-9 in Rome’s history. Though, he added, under the modern definition of a police dog, this canine didn’t fit the bill — it didn’t search buggies for contraband or chase down suspects. No, this stray dog simply started following officers around when they’d go out on patrols, and thus became an attachment.

In the void between a city marshal and a police chief, just after Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union soldiers pulled out of Rome with a trail of ashes and rubble left behind, Gore said a band of 40 men bonded in creating a civilian police outfit. There were no longer regimented troops of either North or South in Rome, and the nearly deserted town was thought to be at risk from thieves and criminals.

“There is some mention that there was a group of citizens that came together that patrolled Rome from marauders ... people who had basically absconded from the armies and were creating their own havoc in the area,” Gore said.

And one these officers died while trying to prevent a robbery, where two war deserters were hanging a man by his neck near Eighth Avenue and Broad Street, torturing him into giving up money and valuables, according to “A History of Rome and Floyd County,” which is the volume Gore has been studying.

In responding to the screams of a woman, Terrence McGuire and Peter Omberg came across two members of a scout band, who held them at gunpoint, planning to “fix them out of town,” according to the diary of Reuben S. Norton, a fellow civilian officer. The two officers ran from the men and in their attempted escape, Omberg was shot in the leg. The wound would prove fatal, as he died the next day while hidden away in a home while the “marauders” ran rampant.

Besides the stories of how policing changed over time, Gore is seeking to mark milestones in the department’s history, such as the first black officer, Milton McConnell, to the naming of the first woman officer in 1974, Elaine Peek Snow, who later became the first woman police chief, or the first women to work inside the department, Mary Manzella and Immogene Hammontree, in the 1970s.

Gore said that in reading some of the excerpts written by Mike Ragland, a former major for many years, he says that McCon­nell wasn’t allowed to ride with white officers or respond to calls from white residents.

But as it stands now, there is a limit to how much Gore can do in completing the history collection. However, he hopes that with the help of the community, the project of creating a book or photo album can come together more quickly and completely.

“I’m interested in any type of old photographs, either group, individual or action photographs from the police department, and any stories that anybody may have about how policing used to be,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of people out there that’s got those stories, some of them I’ve talked to, some of them I haven’t.”

From former officers themselves to their family members, Gore wants assistance in telling the story. He can be reached at rgore@romepolice.com or at 706-238-5125.