Chief Constable Malcolm MacLennan

Chief Constable Malcolm MacLennanThere were 250 people working in the Vancouver Police Department in 1917, policing a city of 100,000 people. They were led by Chief Constable Malcolm MacLennan, who was very popular with his officers and with the citizens of Vancouver.

One of MacLennan’s first acts as Chief was to improve the working conditions in the Department. At the time, officers worked seven days a week, with no days off. At his insistence, they were granted two days off per month. As well, he negotiated with the Police Commission to get his officers a pay raise. He was the first Vancouver Police Chief to hire a visible minority, Constable Raiichi Shirokawa, a Japanese Canadian hired in 1917. Sadly, he only served for a few months before pressure from the Japanese community forced him to resign – they believed he was being used to spy on them. Chief MacLennan was also an advocate for the growing drug addict population, lobbying politicians for a treatment centre to provide medical care for addicts, rather than treat them as criminals. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

On March 20th, 1917, Chief MacLennan was called away from his ten-year-old son’s birthday party, when a landlord / tenant dispute resulted in gunfire, wounding the landlord, a police officer who responded, and eight-year-old George Robb.

The incident began when the landlord tried to collect four months of back rent from an American named Robert Tait, who lived with his girlfriend in an apartment above a grocery store at 522 Georgia Street. The tenants were both morphine and cocaine addicts. Tait came to the door brandishing a shotgun, and threatening the landlord by saying that he would “blow his brains out.” The landlord, Frank King, called the police, and Detective Ernest Russell, and Constables John Cameron and Duncan Johnstone were the first to arrive.

The officers joined the landlord as he knocked on Tait’s door to try to talk to him. Tait responded by shooting his shotgun at them through the glass window in the door, showering them all with glass, splinters, and buckshot. Detective Cameron and Frank King 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 began recklessly firing a rifle from his window onto E. Georgia Street, shooting 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 died an hour later in hospital.

Police reinforcements arrived and surrounded the building and a stand-off ensued. When Chief MacLennan arrived at the scene, he tried to negotiate with Tait and convince him to surrender, but to no avail.

The Chief decided they would storm the apartment. He never sent a man where he would not go himself, so he took the lead, armed with only a heavy fire axe to chop through the door.

Tait had barricaded himself in his bedroom at the back of the apartment, armed with two rifles, two revolvers, and a shotgun – easily out-gunning the police. A fierce gunfight ensued as the officers entered in the dark. They emptied their revolvers, but were forced to retreat a second time to re-load. Once outside, they discovered the Chief was not among them. Tragically, he lay mortally wounded inside the apartment.

The intense gunfire prevented his rescue. Normally, they would have ended a stand-off by dynamiting the house to flush out the suspect, but they did not know if the Chief was still alive or not. Police sharpshooters kept the suspect pinned down over the next four hours, while several unsuccessful attempts were made to rescue the Chief. Gradually, Tait’s return fire diminished as he ran out of ammunition.

A last attempt to retrieve the Chief was successful. They found him dead from a gunshot to the head, which had likely killed him instantly. As officers prepared to smoke the suspect out with sulphur pots, they heard a single shot ring out, followed by quiet. Twenty minutes later, Tait’s girlfriend, Frankie Russell, finally surrendered to police after they threatened to dynamite the house. Inside, Tait lay dead on the floor, having committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with his shotgun.

Malcolm MacLennan: police officer, husband, son.

More Information

Dictionary of Canadian Biography - Greg Marquis

The murder of Chief Malcolm MacLennan and nine-year-old George Robb
by Eve Lazarus
Every Place Has a Story

What Frankie Said
by Lani Russwurm
Past Tense Vancouver Histories

Shoot Out on the 500 block of East Georgia, March 20, 1917
by James Johnstone
When an Old House Whispers

British Columbia Law Enforcement Memorial