By Wesley Harris
In 2010, Ruston Police Corporal Marchale Canty was shot as he investigated a suspicious vehicle parked at a business on the South Service Road. Fortunately, Canty survived his wounds and proudly returned to the job of protecting Ruston’s citizens. His brush with death at the hands of violent criminals reminds us of the risks our law enforcement officers take each time they don the uniform and go out to serve our community.
Ruston is fortunate its police officers rarely face violent confrontations. While all officers experience “close calls,” most complete their careers without a near-fatal encounter like (now Lieutenant) Canty’s.
Three Ruston police officers have died in the line of duty since the city’s founding in 1884. With the passage of time, these sacrifices tend to fade with history. The long forgotten exploits of Chief John Tom Sisemore were uncovered during research of Ruston’s history for the city’s 1984 centennial celebration. No serving officer with the department was aware of his sacrifice when his line-of-duty death was rediscovered.
Around 1894, Sisemore, according to a newspaper report, “fell in” with U.S. Marshal James Martin who served the Western District of Louisiana in Shreveport and eventually was sworn in as a Deputy U.S. Marshal.
Sisemore’s labors were as tough as those faced by lawmen taming the wild and woolly towns of the West. He raided stills, ferreted out bootleggers, and tracked down robbers. He did his job so well that the mention of his name struck fear among whiskey runners. One reporter wrote Sisemore was “an efficient officer who made it exceedingly risky for the moonshiner to run his business in North Louisiana. He is a terror to the whiskey element and all outlaws in general.”
In 1896, Ruston hired Sisemore as a police officer to deal with the town’s crime and disorder problems. Previous officers failed to resolve the nightly gunfire and unrest. Sisemore performed the duties in addition to his U.S. Marshal responsibilities.
One of Ruston’s troublemakers was Frank Mullins. Mullins maintained a storefront near the current location of the Sundown Tavern and called himself a photographer, but his true profession was a bootlegger and troublemaker.
Then, even as now, the criminal justice system did not work as well as some people desired. To Frank Mullins, fines for selling whisky or shooting out store windows were just the cost of doing business and having some fun. Numerous arrests and convictions failed to curb his roguish ways.
Sisemore wanted to make a federal charge against Mullins—one where he couldn’t pay a fine and go right back to work. Sisemore’s brother-in-law Ed Beatty volunteered to make an undercover buy from Mullins.
Before the case went to trial, someone stuck a shotgun through a window as Beatty sat down to supper with his wife and children. The assassination made newspapers all over the country.
The killer was never apprehended but everyone believed it was Frank Mullins. The pending charge against him was effectively dismissed with Beatty’s death.
Eventually Frank Mullins shot up the town one time too many. After hearing gunshots in downtown Ruston one night in February 1898, newly appointed Police Chief Sisemore encountered Mullins near Railroad Park. In the shootout that followed, Frank Mullins was killed. His family vowed to avenge his death.
On the evening of November 17, Sisemore ate supper with his family and played with his youngest son by the fire. Observing his evening routine, Sisemore then left his home on South Trenton Street to make his final rounds through the town.
As he neared the hard-packed street to walk downtown, Sisemore heard a noise in the pine thicket where Walgreen’s on California Avenue is now located. Drawing his revolver, he approached the trees slowly. A shotgun blast knocked Sisemore to the ground. A second shot missed.
Neighbors carried Sisemore to his bed. Doctors hurried to the scene. With his sobbing family and concerned friends gathered around, Sisemore whispered he did not see his ambusher. He died soon after. His killer was never brought to justice.
Over forty years would pass before the next line-of-duty death of a Ruston Police officer. Officer Andrew Harrison “Hal” Posey was a respected officer who had narrowly missed being elected sheriff.
On the evening of November 24, 1940, Posey and Officer Ed Neal were called to a downtown Ruston cafe because two intoxicated men were causing a disturbance. The officers found John Breedlove—Posey’s brother-in-law—and another man drinking in the café. Posey stayed back and let Neal handle the disorderly men. The officer sent them home.
With no police dispatchers on duty in those days, the telephone operator alerted officers on patrol to calls by turning on lights hanging in strategic locations about town. Around midnight, the officers spotted the call light and checked in. A call had reported numerous gunshots at a home on Alabama Avenue where Breedlove boarded with a sister.
When Neal and Posey pulled up at the house, Breedlove shot out a light and walked out onto the darkened front porch. Neal tried to talk to the inebriated Breedlove who ignored him and walked toward the back yard as the officers followed. Breedlove turned and fired at Posey. His first shot missed, but two more struck Posey. Posey returned fire, hitting Breedlove three times. Breedlove then turned his revolver on Neal and pulled the trigger, but the gun was empty. Posey died and Breedlove was hospitalized with minor injuries.
Breedlove went to trial on April 5, 1941. Officer Neal and Auxiliary Officer Manning Mays testified as witnesses to the shooting. Breedlove was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the state prison.
Police officers are trained that the dangers of the street include more than “bad guys with guns.” While felonious murders of American police officers have declined—largely because of changes in tactics and improved equipment—automobile crashes account for a continuing increase in officer fatalities each year. The number of officers struck by vehicles while directing traffic, investigating accidents, and making roadside arrests, as well as crashes responding to calls, now rival gunfire as leading causes of officer deaths.
Ruston Police Sergeant Raymond L. Croxton was the victim of an automobile crash on May 23, 1978. Investigating officers speculated Croxton may have been attempting to catch up to a traffic violator when his patrol car left the roadway on Cedar Creek Road and crashed. Croxton was a shift supervisor with six years’ experience. He was the third and last Ruston police officer to be killed in the line of duty. A son followed in his footsteps by pinning on his own badge.
Police officers enter every situation aware unknown and unpredictable threats may arise without warning. The dangers are emotional as well as physical. The strains placed on officers and their families take their toll. While the attack on Marchale Canty increased the vigilance of all area law officers, it also heightened the anxiety of their families when they strap on duty belts and go out to protect the rest of us.
Like Sisemore, Posey, and Croxton, today’s police officers recognize the risk inherent in every call. It’s easy to develop an “us versus them” mentality because of that danger. We must assure the men and women who stand on the “thin blue line” between good and evil most of us support them. We must also pray for their safety.
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