In 1917 the Vancouver Police Department comprised 250 personnel protecting a city of 100,000 people. That year the department and the city received a devastating blow when Chief Constable Malcolm MacLennan was shot and killed in the line of duty.
Chief Constable MacLennan was very popular with his men and with the citizens of Vancouver. One of his first acts as Chief was to improve the working conditions of his department. At that time members of the force worked seven days a week, with no days off. At his insistence, they were granted two days off per month. As well he was negotiating with the Police Commision on their behalf to get them a pay raise. He was also the first Vancouver Police Chief to hire a visible minority. Constable Raiichi Shirokawa, a Japanese Canadian, was hired in 1917 but only served a few months before pressure from the Japanese community forced him to resign. Unfortunately, they thought he was being used to spy on them. Chief MacLennan was also an advocate for the growing drug addict population. He lobbied politicians for a treatment center, to give addicts medical help, rather than treat them as criminals. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears.
On March 20th, 1917, the tragic events began when the landlord, Frank King, attempted to collect four months back rent from a tenant. The tenant, an American named Robert Tait, lived with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie Russell in an apartment above a grocery store at 522 E. Georgia St. They were both morphine and cocaine addicts. Tait came to the door brandishing a shotgun and threatened the landlord by saying that he would "blow his brains out." The landlord called the police, and Detective Ernest Russell, Constable John Cameron and Constable Duncan Johnston arrived on the scene.
In company with the landlord they knocked on Tait's door and attempted to talk to him. However, he responded by shooting the shotgun at the policemen through the glass window in the door. They were all showered with glass, splinters and buckshot. Detective Cameron and the landlord were each permanently blinded in one eye. Detective Russell was also wounded in the face but was able to function. They all retreated to the street and flagged a passing vehicle to take the wounded to the hospital. Detective Russell went to a nearby police call box to call for reinforcements.
Tait then began firing recklessly from his window with a rifle onto E. Georgia St. and shot and wounded eight-year-old George Robb, who was walking from his house at 548 E. Georgia to the store beneath Tait's apartment to buy candy. Tragically, he would die an hour later in hospital. Upon arrival, police reinforcements surrounded the building and a stand-off ensued. Chief MacLennan was called away from his ten-year old son's birthday party to supervise the scene. Chief MacLennan first attempted to negotiate with Tait to surrender, but to no avail.A decision was then made by the Chief Constable to storm the apartment, and he led the squad. It was his principle of never sending a man where he would not go himself that caused the Chief to lead his men. He was unarmed but carried a heavy fire-axe to chop through the door. However, by this time Tait had barricaded himself in his bedroom at the back of the apartment. Upon entry a fierce gunfight ensued inside the dark apartment. Tait was well armed with two rifles, two revolvers and a shotgun and managed to out-gun the police. Police emptied their revolvers at the suspect but were forced to retreat a second time to re-load, once outside they found the Chief was not with them. Tragically, Chief MacLennan lay mortally wounded inside the apartment. Despite attempts to rescue him they were unable, due to the intense gunfire. Normally in those days, in a stand-off such as that, police would have dynamited the house to flush out the suspect. However, as the Chief was still inside and not confirmed dead, this was not an option. Instead police sharpshooters kept the suspect pinned down over the next four hours and several unsuccessful attempts were made to rescue the Chief. Gradually, the suspect's return fire diminished as he ran out of ammunition.
Another attempt was made to retrieve the Chief, and was successful. However, the Chief was already dead from a gunshot to the head and surely had died instantly. Police were preparing to smoke the suspect out with sulphur pots but before this could be done a single shot was heard from inside the apartment and all was quiet. Twenty minutes later the girlfriend, Frankie Russell, finally surrendered to police but only after they threatened to dynamite the house. Tait lay dead on the floor, having committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with his shotgun.Malcolm MacLennan: policeman, husband, son. "We Shall Never Forget You."Addendum:
Constable Cameron remained permanently blind in one eye and continued to serve with the Vancouver PD. He eventually became Chief Constable of New Wesminster PD and then Vancouver PD.
"All the stories and words on this site were written from the heart, by Sgt. Steve Gibson. They are the result of research and interviews by Cst. Tod Catchpole with families and friends of the officers killed in the line of duty. For the sake of authenticity, the stories appear exactly as written and have not been edited by the site creators. While the Vancouver Police Department stands by the stories, visitors to this site should accept that they may contain minor factual inaccuracies."