As it has evolved since the 1835 formation of the Texas Rangers, state law enforcement has fallen primarily into three categories: state police forces, highway patrols, and other enforcement agencies. That last category represents a myriad of agencies, most with very specific, limited regulatory functions that may or may not include the power to arrest. Highway or state patrols, as their names imply, were created to patrol roadways in order to enforce driving regulations, licensing requirements, and weight limitations for commercial traffic. Not all agencies that bear that designation have remained so limited in function. State police forces traditionally have had the broadest arrest powers and, in some instances, the most diverse roles, including investigating crimes on their own initiative and/or in response to requests from sheriffs’ offices or local police departments.
State governments, particularly in periods of budgetary restrictions, continue to reorganize, even eliminate, their law enforcement agencies. In addition, advancements in identification technologies, public pressure for protection of children, and most recently rising terrorist threats have led to realignments and additional functions for state agencies in all three categories. With certain exceptions, it would be fruitless here to count the number of agencies involved in any specific aspect of state policing/law enforcement; however, certain agencies do illustrate types of policing and state law enforcement.
State Regulatory Enforcement Agencies
These agencies largely fall into three loosely defined groupings: revenue collection, capitol protection, and conservation or environmental policing. But their functions are often blurred. State budgets rely heavily on taxes applied to tobacco, alcohol, gasoline, and most recently gambling. Indiana State Excise Police, for example, regulate the sale of tobacco and alcohol primarily to collect revenue but also to protect public safety by prohibiting after-hours or underage drinking. Besides checking the licenses of commercial vehicles, the South Carolina State Transport Police ticket for littering and arrest for unsafe transport of hazardous materials, among other duties. Nevada relies on its long-standing Gaming Control Board agents to police its very extensive gambling industry. In other states that more recently have been experiencing the rise of casino or riverboat gambling, such as Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, New Jersey, and Oregon, gaming law enforcement has been entrusted to the state police or highway patrol.
Protection for state capitol complexes ranges from small, nonsworn units, such as in Minnesota, to divisions or bureaus of the state police or highway patrol. Even smaller uniformed units, as in Alabama or Delaware, have statewide arrest powers and provide security for various official buildings and state executives. One of the oldest, the Pennsylvania Capitol Police, originated in 1895, a decade before the Pennsylvania State Police. Some capitol police, such as those in Kansas, Idaho, and Iowa, have been and remain part, respectively, of their states’ highway patrol, state police, and state patrol. The trend may well be for capitol police to be absorbed into larger existing agencies. Citing 2001 terrorism, Florida’s legislature moved its capitol police from the more mundane Department of Management Services to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Conservation police are variously known as fish and game wardens, park rangers, conservation agents, natural resources police, and other designations. They represent what may well be the oldest type of state-level policing, originally relying on licenses and fines to pay officers. For example, Maryland saw its first state oyster police in 1868, more than six decades before its state police in 1935; Utah had fish and game wardens forty-five years before establishing a highway patrol in 1941. Typically these small, understaffed agencies have been under conservation departments or, more recently, departments of natural resources (DNRs), responsible for parks, waterways, forests, wetlands, and even private hunting preserves. Long engaged in public service through education, accident prevention, and rescue operations, these officers have enhanced policing roles, recognized in the shift to DNRs and necessitated by changing park usage.
Recreational land use continues to rise. And elusive armed poachers have been replaced by even more dangerous marijuana growers or methamphetamine lab operators. Additionally, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) can commission wardens (or comparable) as deputy agents with authority to enforce federal wildlife laws. In Illinois, for example, conservation police operate jointly with USFWS agents at O’Hare International Airport concerning exotic or even endangered species.
State Criminal Investigative Agencies
Statewide criminal investigative functions are organized primarily under two models—detective bureaus within state police or highway patrols or autonomous agencies, for example, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation or the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Particular arrangements often are in a state of flux. For example, Illinois originally created what amounted to a detective bureau within its state police. During the 1960s, it elected to create an autonomous investigative agency, the Illinois Bureau of Investigation (IBI); only a couple of decades later, it disbanded the IBI in favor of the Division of Criminal Investigation, once again as a bureau under the umbrella of the Illinois State Police.
History of State Police Forces and Highway Patrols
The earliest attempts to establish state police forces were really militias, vice units, or border guards; only the Texas Rangers, itself periodically disbanded, evolved into a modern statewide investigative force. Socioeconomic and political trends led to the first modern state police forces, initially in states with large-scale industries, transportation, and mining.
In 1905, Pennsylvania formed the first sworn, unformed state police force. Bloody strikes connected to rural coal mines and urban steel plants had led to demands for a police force to step between owners and labor unions. For decades, the latter would oppose state police forces as repressive, capitalist tools. Irish immigrants, strongly represented in labor unions, took little comfort in the fact that the first state police were modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, which had been used to quell nationalist dissent. Others feared that the state police forces, proudly adopting a military model, might prove to be virtually standing armies.
But the constabulary model would prevail. Wartime emergencies, municipal police strikes, pandemic influenza, ”red scares,” corruption and brutality among local police, rising rural crime, and illegal liquor manufacture and sales all argued for professional, supposedly less corrupt state law enforcement. Progressive reformers (1880-1920) linked those claims with their campaigns for ”good roads.” Built and maintained, in part, through licensing fees and traffic fines, those paved highways were to increase taxable commerce and diminish rural isolation. Statewide police forces, within a civil service framework, were to model efficient, honest law enforcement for municipal police and sheriffs’ offices. The 1929 Wickersham Commission echoed the call for state police forces, and by 1941 every state except Hawaii had some form of state police or highway patrol. However, for decades Progressive aspirations for policing the commonwealth were diminished by political patronage, limited authority, piecemeal development, and shifting administrative oversight.
Highway or State Patrols and State Police
Today state policing services are predominantly provided by highway patrols, state patrols, and state police. In some of the nation’s smallest states, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, the state police have long carried out the patrol and investigative work customarily done by sheriffs’ offices. Although the mission statements of state police customarily include the duty to assist, not supplant, all other police agencies, the trend has been for state-level policing agencies to expand their authority.
The past half century has seen the original highway patrols and virtually synonymous state patrols leave behind their limited patrol, traffic enforcement, and commercial trucking supervisory duties to become state police in fact, if not in name. That trend is clearest with the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Nebraska State Patrol, and Ohio State Highway Patrol, which have both uniformed and plainclothes officers who can arrest and investigate statewide for nontraffic criminal offenses. Even the more limited highway patrols have become centers for crime data collection, fingerprint identification, missing children alerts, sexual offender/predator tracking, and most recently antiterrorism security measures.
Highway patrols and state police share certain other characteristics. Responding to societal pressure and legal precedents, agencies generally recruited their first African American officers in the 1960s and first female officers in the 1970s. Both consistently school their officers in their own training academies, open in some states to local police. Motorcycle units, featured in the 1920s and 1930s, have reappeared after a hiatus. And, more important, whether highway patrols or state police, these agencies are called in to supplement correctional personnel during prison riots and local police overwhelmed by urban riots.
Typical traditional patrols are the Utah Highway Patrol (begun in 1923) and the North Dakota State Patrol (created in 1935). Responding to increasing numbers of vehicles and accidents, highway commissions in both states singled out a handful of employees for part-time use on the state roadways outside municipalities. Those troopers or patrolmen, as they soon came to be known, searched the highways for speeders and other violators, administered driving exams once licenses became mandatory, and inspected vehicles, both private and commercial. Those early officers were neither appointed nor promoted under civil service regulations. During subsequent decades, both forces expanded in size, increased officers’ training, implemented civil service testing, employed new technologies, and utilized canine units. Those changes reflected not only increased drug enforcement and anti-terrorism security but also continuing service on the highways and in response to natural disasters, inclement weather, and other emergencies.
Other state agencies with similar origins, for example, the Virginia State Police or the Illinois State Police (ISP), have evolved beyond a chief emphasis on traffic enforcement. Despite organized labor’s long-standing opposition, between 1921 and 1923, Illinois established three state highway units: one directly under the governor that would become the ISP, another that still exists as the Illinois Secretary of State Police (ISSP), and a third under the public works department, absorbed into the ISP in 1939. The ISSP investigates auto theft and licensing fraud, provides security for the state capitol complex, and houses the state’s bomb unit. Much larger and more diverse in its responsibilities is the ISP, under a merit system by 1949. The ISP maintains a central repository for criminal statistics, histories, and fingerprints; has forensic laboratories around the state for its own and other jurisdictions’ investigations; registers firearms; employs polygraph operators; and investigates medical insurance and other fraud, elder and child abuse, and terrorist threats. It also still patrols the highways, responds to disasters or accidents, and quells riots.
In the 1920s, Illinois State Police advocates wanted to establish a force much like the state police in New Jersey (1921), New York (1917), West Virginia (1919), and most notably Pennsylvania (1905). Initial efforts failed, but the ISP—much like the Maryland or Michigan State Police— grew into that model in a piecemeal fashion. State police, and some highway patrols, are diverse forces that investigate crimes far removed from roads they first patrolled.
See also: History of American Policing; Militarization of the Police; Pennsylvania State Police; Texas Rangers; Traffic Services and Management; Weed and Seed.
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