In the early days, they rode horses. Today they drive dark blue cruisers with gold trim. They are the West Virginia State Police, the fourth oldest police force of its kind in the United States. Members have a proud tradition going back almost 85 years.
After World War I, there was a great deal of unrest and uncertainty worldwide. Workers were organizing and wielding power as never before. In 1918, the Bolsheviks in Russia revolted and seized power. Fearing the same thing could happen in their country, the British implemented gun control in 1920.
Here in West Virginia, crime had gotten out of hand. There were gangs of armed criminals terrorizing communities and thumbing their noses at local authorities. For some time, the United Mine Workers had been pushing to organize West Virginia’s coal miners. Coal operators hired Baldwin-Felts Detectives, who were nothing more than thugs, to intimidate striking miners. This led to a number of bloody confrontations. The worst was the Cabin CreekPaint Creek strike of 1912-13. Before it was over, Governor Glasscock was forced to call out the National Guard and declare martial law three timessomething that had never been done in West Virginia’s history. Some of the guard companies remained on occupation duty for another year. This angered labor.
During the war years, things were relatively peaceful. After the war, most of the miners in the southern coal fields were still non-union. Governor John Cornwell viewed this as a simmering pot which could boil over at any minute. He knew many deputy sheriffs were on coal company payrolls and could not be depended on.
Cornwell introduced his plan for a State Police System to the regular session of the Legislature in 1919. The bill was defeated. Undaunted, he called the Legislature back into special session. The fight over House Bill Number 4 would become most bitterly contested legislative battles the state ever saw. This fight, as one writer put it, expended “…more oratory than probably any other issue unless it was woman’s suffrage”.
Newspapers weighed in on the controversy. The Charleston Daily Mail said, “There is…a certain danger that the State Police Bill will be opposed and very bitterly. The opposition will come from two sources: (1) citizens who hold themselves either above the law or unduly favored by the law: (2) other citizens who want either their votes or whose backbone is composed of some fibrous material resembling cotton twine”.
A Charleston Gazette editorial entitled, “The Constabulary Law”, said: “It should be defeated because its cost would be out of all proportion to the good that is claimed for it. Public opinion is sick and tired of the old ‘guard system’ and woes and terrors which followed in its wake. Call it what you may, the Constabulary is recognized as a revival of the guard system and to establish it will have the very opposite effect from that intended by the well-meaning people who support it”.
Despite all the long-winded speeches and bickering, the controversy centered on three major points:
1. Central police power vs. local police power.
2. Labor fearing industry would use the state police as a strikebreaking weapon.
3. Fear the police force would simply be part of a political machine and lead ultimately to a police state.
In addition to all the oratory, heated debate, yelling, arm waving and fingerpointing that went on inside the Capitol, there was a great deal of behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. Legend has it that there were several drinks of Kentucky’s finest involved in the process. One delegate promised to vote for the bill if the name was changed from the West Virginia State Police to the Department of Public Safety.
When House Bill Number 4 finally came up for a vote on March 24, 1919, it passed by only one vote. Five days later, the bill passed the Senate and on March 31, Governor Cornwell signed it into law. The Department of Public Safety Act went into effect on June 29, 1919.
The troopers would have full police power anywhere within the boundaries of the state. They were authorized to apprehend and arrest persons for violations of any federal, state or local law; to serve criminal (but not civil) process; to cooperate with local law enforcement; to act as forest patrolmen, game and fish wardens and deputy prohibition officers. They were prohibited from interfering with the rights or property of anyone except for the prevention of crime. A trooper’s political activity was limited to voting. They could not be detailed to duty near any polling place or convention site nor could they remain near a polling place before or after voting. Troopers would not be allowed to aide or side with either party to a labor dispute. Any trooper hiring himself out as a private guard would be guilty of a felony.
A superintendent appointed by the governor and approved by the senate would be in charge of the Department. His term would run concurrently with the governor’s. The position carried with it the rank of colonel and a salary of $3,000 per year.
Former Army Lieutenant Colonel Jackson Arnold, the first superintendent, was given the job of creating a Department of Public Safety from scratch. As both Michigan and New York had done, he used Pennsylvania’s state police system as a pattern. Authorized strength was 125 men and Arnold was expected to put together a force of 50 men as soon as possible.
Requirements for recruits were: male veterans of World War I, between 25 and 46 years of age; able to ride a horse; of sound constitution and good moral character. Each recruit was given a mental and physical examination. Troopers could be fired by the superintendent pending a review by a bipartisan two-man board.
The first recruit was 24-year-old Sam Taylor who reported for duty on July 24, 1919. Taylor’s career was cut short when a car sideswiped his motorcycle, injuring his leg so severely it eventually had to be amputated. He was honorably discharged on July 23, 1927.
Those early troopers rode horses (hence the nickname). Due to the small size of the force, many of them worked like circuit riders. They would ride through a county, inquire if there was trouble in the area, resolve the trouble and then ride on to the next county. A motorcycle patrol was added in 1923. Motorcycles were used until 1948. The motorcycle patrol was revived in 1975 and again discontinued in 1977.
At first, they wore their army uniforms due to a garment workers strike. When the state began to supply uniforms, the color forest green was chosen. It blended into the foliage and did not show dirt easily. Many times a trooper would be on duty at a coalmine or on stakeout, watching a moonshine still in the morning and have to testify in court that afternoon with no time in between to change. Wearing a forest green uniform, he would still look presentable. Over the years, the cut of the uniform had changed, but the color has remained the same. No other law enforcement agency within the state is permitted to wear forest green. In keeping with their military beginning, the troopers still wear campaign hats.
Arnold had difficulty maintaining his quota of officers during the first three years. Over 300 men were discharged between 1919 and 1921. The following year, another 141 were discharged. Many were not suited for the job, others couldn’t take the long hours and the loneliness of being away from home for weeks at a time and just quit. Also, the job was dangerous. Several of the early troopers were shot from ambush.