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Story: Mitchell, Alfred James

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Mitchell, Alfred James


Police superintendent

This biography, written by Sherwood Young, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Alfred James Mitchell was born in Plymouth, England, on 19 January 1853, the son of Alfred Adolphus Mitchell, a Royal Navy post captain, and his wife, Nelly Stanley. He served as a police constable in England before emigrating to Australia, where he joined the New South Wales police force for six months. On 4 April 1877 he married Rose Frances Burke at Melbourne, his occupation being described as clerk.

The Mitchells moved to New Zealand, where Alfred joined the New Zealand Constabulary Force in Dunedin on 27 April 1877. He resigned in June 1878, rejoining in February 1879. He became an acting sergeant in May 1893 and transferred to Hastings as the officer in charge. In 1897 he took charge of the Napier station. This was the beginning of a steady rise through the ranks by a man who was clearly ambitious.

In 1900 Mitchell was promoted to the position of sub-inspector at Wellington. It was not long before he was quarrelling with his superior, Inspector Peter Pender, who had also had differences with Mitchell's predecessor. The commissioner of police, J. B. Tunbridge, was later accused of having placed Mitchell in Wellington to 'annoy and harass Inspector Pender'.

By early 1901 Mitchell had transferred to Auckland, under the redoubtable Inspector John Cullen, who soon felt Mitchell was attempting to take too much responsibility. On 1 October 1902 he was elevated to inspector in charge of the new Invercargill district. With this promotion he became one of the eight district commanders, reporting directly to the commissioner.

In 1905 Mitchell earned the displeasure of the new commissioner, Walter Dinnie, when, without his permission, he attended the Dunedin hearing of the Royal Commission on the Police Force of New Zealand. By now Mitchell had clear aspirations to be commissioner himself. He nevertheless remained in Invercargill until after Dinnie's forced resignation following the 1909 royal commission; he took command in Dunedin in early 1911. This gave him one of the four largest police districts, and the Dunedin men were happy to welcome the popular Mitchell. When Cullen became commissioner in 1912, Mitchell succeeded him in Auckland. Early in 1913 he became one of the newly designated superintendents in the four main centres.

Mitchell had now reached the peak of his career, but almost immediately was in trouble with his superiors. Young police activists in Auckland enlisted unionist Arthur Rosser to form a police association; its formation was announced at the Auckland Trades Hall on 11 April 1913. The minister of justice, Alexander Herdman, and Commissioner Cullen opposed the association's formation and suggestions were made that Mitchell had either been too lenient on his men, or that he had given them covert support. Yet he was regarded by some as a disciplinarian who rigidly imposed petty restrictions on his men. Branches of the association were quickly formed in Wellington and Christchurch. On 25 April Cullen paraded the Auckland men and asked them to state their grievances. Over the next few months, with Herdman's backing, most of the leaders of the association were dismissed, forced to resign, or transferred.

Further trouble followed when Mitchell insisted on employing traditional policing practices and maintaining neutrality during the industrial strife of 1913. Herdman and Cullen sent some 50 police into Huntly, but Mitchell kept them in plain clothes and mostly out of town, while retaining contact with the striking miners' union. This was not in accord with the wishes of the government. To make matters worse, Mitchell decided that no special constables were required in Auckland; his regular police could cope. He met with and publicly praised the watersiders' union for unloading fruit from the wharves, and supported their right to picket peacefully. On 31 October the prime minister, William Massey, told James Gunson, chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board, that he should enrol specials regardless of Mitchell's views.

Mitchell was now regarded as incompetent by Cullen, who had enthusiastically used special constables in Wellington. On 1 November 1913 he was summoned to Wellington and put on informal leave by the commissioner; he was replaced for the duration of the industrial trouble by Superintendent Nicholas Kiely from Christchurch. The Auckland Harbour Board was not satisfied, and on 19 December Mitchell's transfer to Dunedin was announced.

Cullen was now determined to rid himself of Mitchell. When William Evans, the Dunedin police surgeon, presented some grievances in 1914, Cullen appointed a committee of inquiry. Mitchell was induced to commence retirement leave from 1 October, his retirement taking effect on 31 March 1915 (some three years early).

Alfred Mitchell returned to Auckland, where he died on 18 August 1928, survived by his wife and five children. Rose Mitchell died on 15 May 1944. Although Mitchell had suffered because he remained neutral during the events of 1913, he lived to see his approach to policing once again become the accepted method.

How to cite this page:

Sherwood Young. 'Mitchell, Alfred James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m56/mitchell-alfred-james (accessed 22 June 2024)