Howlett Park Honors Rochester’s First Police Chief

A city park on Inglewood Avenue is named in honor of the man who built a modern police department for Rochester and helped to shape the town’s safety and prosperity for almost half a century.

Howlett sits at a desk, in uniform, with paperwork on the desk surface.
Rochester Police Chief Sam Howlett at his desk (Courtesy of Barbara Howlett Bates)

Samuel “Sam” Howlett was born in 1909 in the area historically known as the Big Beaver settlement, which was centered around the intersection of Rochester and Big Beaver roads in Troy Township. Howlett’s family roots in Oakland County extended back to pioneer days. His great-great-grandfather and namesake had emigrated from Suffolk, England, and settled in Oakland County in 1832.

When Sam Howlett graduated from Royal Oak’s Oak Ridge High School in 1928, he worked briefly in the auto industry. In the summer of 1934, a friend told him that the village of Rochester had an opening for a part-time traffic enforcement officer, and Howlett applied for the position. “They gave me a badge and told me to go to work,” he told a newspaper interviewer in 1981. “I didn’t even know what an ordinance was.”

At the time that Howlett was hired, Rochester’s police department consisted of only one officer. George Spencer, who carried the title of town marshal, worked the overnight shift as a sort of night watchman for the downtown businesses. During daytime hours, there was no police officer on duty. But the village fathers had become concerned about the increased automobile traffic in town and the incidents of speeding and other forms of reckless driving.

Howlett stand in uniform next to his wife.
Sam Howlett and his wife, Mildred, about 1936 (Courtesy of Barbara Howlett Bates)

When the council hired Howlett to work traffic enforcement, he was paid on a commission basis, meaning that he received a payment for every ticket he wrote. The local traffic scofflaws who were accustomed to disobeying speed limits with impunity accused Howlett of exceeding his authority in order to pad his paycheck. The village fathers demonstrated with statistics that the accusations were untrue, and stated that they had only instituted the commission method of paying Howlett because the village was in severe financial condition. Apparently seeing that Howlett’s authority was being undermined by such a system, they discontinued the commission basis for his pay and voted him a straight salary instead.

In April 1936, the village council appointed Howlett to a permanent position as a regular daytime police officer. A year later, upon the retirement of town marshal George Spencer, Sam Howlett was named Rochester’s first-ever chief of police.

Once he was appointed as chief, Howlett began working to put together a real police force for the village. In a 1977 newspaper interview, he recalled that for four years he was a “one-man operation,” handling all emergency calls by himself. At the time, police calls in Rochester were not radio-dispatched. Instead, a blue signal light hung at the intersection of Main and Fourth streets, and when a call came in, the telephone office would turn on the blue light to signal the officer to return to the village hall and check in with the telephone operator to find out where he was needed.

Eventually, Howlett convinced the village fathers to hire enough officers to protect the town with three overlapping shifts. In 1948, the department reached a milestone when a radio-dispatched police car rendered the old blue-light signal system obsolete. According to reports in the Rochester Era, the village council embraced the police radio system despite opponents who scoffed that it was unnecessary and “wouldn’t be used once in five years.”

Rochester’s police department also served as a driver’s license bureau. Many long-time residents of Rochester remember taking their driver’s license tests from Sam Howlett. In 1937, the Michigan legislature had passed a law requiring that motorists who were applying for a driver’s license pass a written and oral examination. Local police agencies were empowered to examine drivers and issue licenses, and as Rochester’s ranking law enforcement officer, Sam Howlett was tasked with this work. Many a nervous teen stood before Chief Howlett at the old village hall on East Fourth Street to answer the test questions before being issued a coveted first driver’s license.

Newspaper notice announcement from 1937
This 1937 newspaper notice announced the hours for driver’s license examinations at the Rochester Police Department.

Howlett took a community policing approach to his work. He believed in having a personal connection with the people he served. “My dad was very much a people-oriented person. He said the only way you make things work in a community is to be out and about and listen to the people,” Howlett’s daughter, Barbara Bates, told Rochester Media in a recent interview. “Dad was also of the opinion that there were no bad kids. He’d rather send a kid back to a merchant to apologize for shoplifting than take a hard line.”

Working as a police officer in a small town wasn’t always easy, however. Howlett told a newspaper interviewer in 1981 that some of his encounters with the public turned into touchy situations. “When I arrested somebody, I usually stepped on 20 toes because everybody was related,” he said at that time. “Everybody knew everybody.”

After serving as a Rochester police officer for 29 years—27 of them as chief of police—Sam Howlett retired from village employment in 1964 and handed off a department that numbered seven patrolmen, one detective, and four dispatchers. He then joined National Twist Drill as assistant chief of plant protection. A few years later, he was asked to form a security department at Crittenton Hospital and served as the hospital’s chief of security until 1978, when he retired again.

But Howlett was not finished serving the citizens of Rochester. He had been elected to the village council in 1965, the year following his retirement as chief of police. He had decided to run for office because he wanted the council to understand the needs of the police force. He had spent almost three decades building a modern police department from a one-man office and he wanted Rochester to move forward with up-to-date policing methods, services, and equipment.

Howlett went on to serve as a member of the Rochester village council (and after 1967, the city council) from 1965 until 1981. He was elected mayor in 1973-74 and 1975-76. During his mayoral terms, the city began the Community House remodeling project, filed a petition to annex two square miles of Avon Township, took bids for rebuilding the Ludlow bridge, and celebrated the U.S. Bicentennial with several public events.

Daughter Barbara Bates remembers that one of her father’s greatest attributes as a councilmember was his sincere willingness to consider alternate points of view. When Bates learned that her father had voted against funding for a substance abuse treatment program, she sat down with him to explain why she felt that it was in the city’s best interests to support the program. “I was able to change his mind,” she recalled. “He really listened.”

Samuel A. Howlett Park Sign
Samuel A. Howlett Park

In May 1986, exactly 50 years after Sam Howlett had become a full-time Rochester police officer, the Rochester City Council passed a resolution renaming St. Andrew Park on the corner of Romeo Road and Inglewood Avenue in his honor. Samuel A. Howlett Park is a passive-use facility with rolling terrain and a small pond—a quiet place of enjoyment for the residents of the neighborhoods that surround it. A rededication ceremony was held on June 30, 1986, and a new sign for Howlett Park was unveiled with Sam Howlett himself in attendance for the event. “He was thrilled,” daughter Barbara Bates remembers. “He just wished that his wife had been there to see it.”

Sam Howlett died in 1996, leaving as his legacy the modern police department that serves Rochester today. His civic-mindedness and community spirit are memorialized in the city park that bears his name.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. JOAN L KOTCHER says

    Hmmm. That is really nice.

  2. Sharon Potere says

    What a wonderful tribute to Sam! How proud Barb must be, as well she should be!

  3. don and sandy olson says

    Wonderful article Debbie. Thank you.

  4. Ilene Hyder says

    Thanks Debbie, this was good. I remember Sam well, from growing up in Rochester.

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