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Baxter County Patrol Vehicle

Evolution of Law Enforcement in Arkansas

Law enforcement has evolved over the years

As someone who is a part of law enforcement, I have always been interested in the history of that profession in Arkansas and learning how it began in its infancy and evolved into what we all know today.

In 1803, territory encompassing present day Arkansas was acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. Over the next 30 years, Arkansas came under control of various Federal structures. It was first a District of the State of Louisiana and later a “county” of Missouri. On July 4, 1819, the Territory of Arkansas was carved out of Missouri Territory, and Arkansas Territory initially included most of present day Oklahoma as well. The first territorial capital was Arkansas Post, followed by Little Rock from 1821 to 1836. President James Monroe appointed James Miller as the first territorial Governor and three people were appointed to serve as the first Superior Court Judges. The first election for the General Assembly took place in November, 1819.

There is evidence that Sheriffs, Circuit Courts, County Courts, and Courts of Common Pleas existed in Arkansas Territory in the very early 1830’s, and they undoubtedly existed well before then. The General Assembly had already met in session at least eight times by 1834, and it undoubtedly passed many acts for the governance of the territory, keeping of the peace, and general law and order.

The Office of Sheriff came to the United States, and to Arkansas, from Great Britain, albeit in a somewhat modified form. The word “Sheriff” is a contraction of the term “Shire Reeve”. In old England, this was the term for the Royal Official responsible for keeping the King’s peace. Its origins can be traced back before the Norman Conquest of 1066. In Scotland, the Sheriff acted more in a judicial capacity, rather than as a peace officer. In both kingdoms, the Sheriff was appointed by the Crown, and not directly elected, as later came to be the predominant manner in the United States. The Sheriff was a familiar local official throughout the original thirteen colonies and early states. As settlers moved West, they established governments in the manner they were familiar with, which included a Sheriff, usually as an official of a “county”, which is a subdivision of the state somewhat analogous to an old English “shire”.

On June 15, 1836, the Territory of Arkansas officially became the State of Arkansas, its first constitution having been ratified by Congress on January 30, 1836. This constitution divided Arkansas into 34 counties. Voters in each county were to elect one (1) Sheriff, among other county officials. Each county was divided into townships, and voters were to elect one (1) Constable for the township and one (1) Justice of the Peace for each fifty voters in the township. Sheriffs were only permitted to serve for one (1) term of two years. The term for Constables was also two years, but the constitution did not specifically state whether persons holding office as Constable could be re-elected or not. Incorporated Towns were also permitted to have a separate Constable and a Magistrate. The Circuit Courts, County Courts, and Courts of Common Pleas were retained, and all Judges were also deemed to be “Conservators of the Peace”.

As with Sheriffs, the Office of Constable is an ancient one, believed to have been in existence in Europe during the time of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is derived from the Latin term “comes stabuli”, which means Count of the Stable. In 1285, King Edward I of England in the Statue of Westminster provided for two Constables for every “hundred”, or subdivision. At first these Constables were elected, but from 1617 onward were appointed by the Crown or by Justices of the Peace. The office eventually evolved into one of the ceremonial Great Officers of State in Great Britain and France (i.e. Lord High Constable of England and Constable of France).

The 1836 constitution was replaced by a new constitution in 1861 when Arkansas seceded from the union at the beginning of the Civil War. This constitution was generally similar to the 1836 constitution, except that it replaced references to the United States of America with the Confederate States of America.

A third constitution was approved in 1864, following the Civil War. This constitution provided for the popular election of Judges. It remained in effect during the reconstruction period.

A fourth constitution for the State of Arkansas was ratified on March 13, 1868 when Arkansas re-entered the union. The authority of the Governor was substantially enhanced under this version, including giving the Governor broad authority to appoint Judges.

Arkansas’ last constitution of 1874, which remains in effect today in a much amended form, incorporated more changes in governmental structure than any of the previous ones had. Centralized power was devolved from the State level, and county government became more prominent and more important than ever before as the chief administrative units of the State. County governments were to exercise broad power over roads and bridges, taxation, and the judiciary. The power of the Governor was reduced, and the General Assembly was only permitted to meet every other year for no more than sixty days. The number of elected county officials was increased from two to ten. Sheriffs (on the county level per Article 7, Section 46), and Constables (on the township level per Article 7, Section 47) and Justices of the Peace were retained as elected constitutional officers. They continued to provide for dispensation of justice and the maintenance of law and order in rural Arkansas. With a small population, few cities, and only rudimentary roads and transportation available throughout most of Arkansas, the Sheriffs, Constables, and their few deputies performed their duties unaided by then non-existent state agencies, with no formal police training, minimal education, and with nominal, basic equipment that they probably had to provide for themselves.

Salaries or compensation from the county, if there was any at all, was very minimal at best. Sheriffs and Constables conducted most of their business on a “fee” basis. They were allowed and could collect a set fee on just about everything they did. This included service of civil court papers, attending court, guarding prisoners, mileage for transportation costs, and for many other reasons. Sheriffs were in charge of the jails, as they are today. Trials of the accused were held promptly in those days, before a Justice of the Peace for a minor offense or before a traveling Circuit Judge if for a felony crime. If you were fined, you either paid it or were put into custody. There were none of the monthly payment plans so prevalent today.

There was no office open round the clock a person could go to for help. If you needed the Sheriff or Constable, then you went to his house or sent for him. It might take hours or even longer for the Sheriff to arrive, probably on horseback. Unless the Sheriff brought a deputy, or maybe even a posse, with him, he was probably on his own. There was no “back-up” you could call for as we know it today.

Today, there are 75 counties in Arkansas and around 500 municipalities that are broken down into Cities of the First Class, Cities of the Second Class, and Incorporated Towns. While counties are administrative units of the state that have the basis of their structure in the Arkansas constitution, cities and towns on the other hand are creatures of the legislature. They have only those powers, only those officials, and only those responsibilities that the General Assembly permits them to have. These can all be changed at any time by act of the legislature.

As more and more cities and towns formed in Arkansas, there was recognized the need to provide law enforcement agents to specifically keep the peace and enforce the laws and local ordinances in those municipalities. Early legislative acts gave the larger Cities of the First Class the authority to organize police forces under the general superintendence of the Mayor. Although there may be a Chief of Police appointed by the Mayor or perhaps the City Council, pre-eminent authority over the municipal police forces rested by statute in the hands of the Mayor, then as now. The Mayor is a Conservator of the Peace as well and has the authority to make arrests. The legislature initially provided that the smaller Cities of the Second Class would have an elected City Marshal, whose powers and duties were very similar to those of the elected Sheriffs and Constables within their jurisdictions. Incorporated Towns were permitted to have a Town Marshal, but not required. Over time, the legislature has permitted variations. For example, Cities of the Second Class today may either have an elected Marshal or an appointed Marshal. Only an elected Marshal is an executive official of the city. An appointed Marshal is merely a department head or employee answerable to the Mayor. In the alternative, the City Council may abolish the Office of Marshal and create a Police Department or enter into an inter-local contract agreement with another law enforcement agency to provide police services for the city, as may Incorporated Towns.

With the advent of the automobile and with it becoming more affordable and accessible in the 1920’s, and with roadways gradually improving, law enforcement began to go mobile out of necessity. The use of two-way radios for communicating with other officers and headquarters also began to come about in the 1930’s. Over time, police radios, though initially not very reliable, greatly increased police efficiency and reduced response times. During the 1930’s, the state government also recognized the need for a state level law enforcement agency. On March 19, 1935, the Department of the Arkansas State Police was created. Although most of the uniformed troopers that people see today are out patrolling the federal and state highways in Arkansas, the Arkansas State Police have full police and investigative powers. Part of its original mission was to assist local law enforcement agencies, and that mission continues today. There also exists today many specialized agencies on the state level, such as the Wildlife Officers of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Highway Patrol Officers from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, and State Parks Officers with the Arkansas State Parks, to name a few.

Ever since the early part of the 20th century, there have been multiple law enforcement officials and agencies co-existing in Arkansas with each other at the same time. That fact begs the question as to whether or not a particular official or agency has any kind of superior or superintending authority over one or more of the others. Simply put, the answer to that question is no, they do not. Each of these officials and agencies have concurrent jurisdiction to investigate crime, keep the peace, and exercise their authority simultaneously within the respective geographical boundaries of their overlapping jurisdictions. To give an example, a crime that occurred within the City of Gassville could theoretically be investigated by the Gassville Police, Baxter County Sheriff, Township 10 Constable, and the Arkansas State Police at the exact same time, either jointly or completely separate and independent of one another. In practice, that doesn’t happen, but it certainly could.

It has been demonstrated historically in Arkansas that the power of the county sheriff has at times eclipsed the power of other county officials. In some counties, the Sheriff has held enormous political clout and real power over everyday events, even those which do not fall within the official realm of his responsibilities. Part of this can undoubtedly be attributed to the fact that the Sheriff in Arkansas is directly elected by the people of the county. This being the case, the elected Sheriff does not answer to any other state or county official. Barring the Sheriff’s defeat at the ballot box or his removal from office for having been convicted of a felony or an "infamous crime", the Sheriff is secure in his position and free to manage the affairs of his office as he sees fit, not inconsistent with the law. Another reason was because by the very nature of the office, the Sheriff was out and about in the community, inter-mingling with the populace and carrying on the business of his office. Most other county officials had offices in the Court House where they spent the majority of their time. This unofficial power and attendant influence of the Sheriff was somewhat tempered, but to a very minor degree, by the passage of Amendment 55 to the current Arkansas Constitution. This amendment gave the Quorum Court broad authority to pass ordinances re-organizing county government into administrative departments with appointed department heads, rather than elected officials, although ratification by vote of the people is required to make any such changes effective. In practice, changes of this nature have been extremely rare occurrences and the impact of Amendment 55 throughout Arkansas’ 75 counties has been negligible in that respect. In fact, a couple attempts in other parts of the State to make changes have been quashed by the courts because of separation of powers doctrine and insufficient segregation of duties issues in the specific proposals that were considered.

On the other hand, Constables, while elected, wield only fractional authority in real practice today. With minimal training, they have the authority of Sheriffs within their townships, but it is rarely exercised to a significant degree. This can be attributed to the fact that Constables in Arkansas are generally unpaid or receive only a small stipend at the sole discretion of the Quorum Court. Although previously they could, they are now no longer permitted to appoint deputies. They do not have offices provided for them. They have only the equipment they provide for themselves. The Justice of the Peace courts no longer exist for them to serve. Although an active Constable can still have a purpose and mission, the office is generally considered to be obsolescent.  Many call repeatedly for its abolishment, which would require nothing less than a constitutional amendment to accomplish.

Local law enforcement in Arkansas did not make a turn toward true professionalism until the late 1970’s when the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training (CLEST) was formed. Its purpose was to establish, keep, and maintain minimum standards that all law enforcement officers in Arkansas must meet. Prior to these standards being put into place, practically anyone without a felony conviction under his belt could be given a badge and gun and put to work for a county or a municipality with no training or qualifications. Jobs in law enforcement were just that…….jobs. They were not viewed in many quarters as professional careers and they paid poorly, as some unfortunately still do.

Today, most agencies wouldn’t consider putting a newly appointed deputy or officer to work on the street without his or her having first met all minimum qualifications, attended the basic training academy, and had a significant period of field training with the department. I think it would be safe to say that at least until the early 1990’s, the reverse was true in many agencies.

Law enforcement has now truly become a career. Officers strive to better themselves by attending continuous training, keeping abreast of the latest procedures, improving their education, setting goals for their career advancement, finding innovative ways to promote their departments and missions of their leaders. CLEST now offers five different, graduated levels of certification for all officers. These are the Basic, General, Intermediate, Advanced, and Senior certifications. Some elected Sheriffs and even some Constables now attend basic academy training and subsequent training, even though they aren’t required to.

Another area that has seen massive change in the past few decades is the use of technology in law enforcement. It’s not been that long ago that the only computer system used by Arkansas law enforcement was the ACIC/NCIC system maintained by the state. The individual departments had to pay for having that equipment in their facilities and still do. In the early years of ACIC/NCIC, the equipment in one department might serve as many as 6 or more surrounding counties and all the municipal agencies within those counties. Now there are multiple ACIC/NCIC work stations in each of our 75 counties. Today, in addition to just ACIC/NCIC, we have computerized records management systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, and the internet that allows us to access and search multiple databases for law enforcement purposes.

Personal computers that we take for granted today were non-existent. All reports were typed and filed. The radio logs were typed or hand-written. Lists of warrants were typed or written on 3 x 5 note cards and kept in a box. Everything was done by hand. There were no fax machines or email. You made a phone call from a land line or sent a letter in the mail if you needed to communicate with someone.

Besides his sidearm, the only weapon an officer might carry around here prior to the early 1990’s was a baton or night stick of some kind. Pepper spray and Tasers were not seen. Radars were large, bulky contraptions. There were no cell phones and very few hand-held radios, and the ones we did have looked like those huge army field walkie-talkies you might see on M.A.S.H. If you were on a call or vehicle stop and needed help, the only way to call for it was to manage to get back to your car to reach the car radio. If you were out somewhere on a meal break and the dispatcher needed to reach you, then he called the restaurant or whatever phone number you said you would be out at. If you were off duty, and there was an emergency, the only way you would know about it would be if you happened to be home to answer your home phone. You wouldn’t get a text page, because you didn’t have a pager. Bullet proof vests were heavy, bulky, and very uncomfortable. Many officers didn’t have them. We had two decent patrol cars when I started. A third one, in very poor condition, was used only as an emergency back-up. It really wasn’t safe to drive. Today, we have all these modern conveniences that we sometimes think have been around forever and we don‘t think we could live or work without them……but we did.

In my early days on the force, many departments did not have officers on duty 24 hours per day, including the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office. Response times could be very lengthy when a deputy had to be called out from his home in the middle of the night. Those were also the days of “Territorial Deputies”. These officers were responsible for handling calls in a specific area of the county. They furnished their own vehicles, and a motley collection of them it was too. Territorial deputies were truly a necessity in the decades before the two bridges were built across Norfork Lake. The entire Eastern side of the county was cut off from Mountain Home. The only way across the lake was the ferry, and I don’t think the ferry was always in operation 24 hours per day either.

I know of at least one area Sheriff’s Office that had its phone calls transferred to the Sheriff’s house after office hours and on weekends. The Sheriff’s wife took calls and acted as dispatcher. There were many nights when working an overnight shift at MHPD that the closest “on duty” officers would be in Harrison to the West and several counties away to the East.

Municipal Court was held one day per week, arraignments in the morning and trials in the afternoon. There was a part time judge and one part time court clerk, Mrs. Dee Byrd, then later Anne Porter. They collected fine money from the bench as the judge called the next case. Both the judge and the clerk had very tiny offices in the Mountain Home City Hall. Court was held in the council chambers. The arraignment proceedings were handled swiftly. If you plead guilty, the judge pronounced the sentence, then you walked forward and paid the clerk. There were no plea statement forms to sign, no waiver forms, no probation officers or safety officers to see and no applications to see a public defender. If the judge sentenced you to jail, or sometimes if you couldn’t pay the fine, then you had a seat on the front bench and waited for court to end, then you were taken to the jail. If you wanted a trial on one of the more serious charges, and if you were indigent and couldn’t afford a lawyer, then the judge would appoint one of the local attorneys to represent you. You usually didn’t have to pay for it either.

When I began my law enforcement career in 1988, agencies tended to operate on the principle that they would be responsible for performing tasks assigned to them by statute, ordinance, or executive order, but otherwise would not take action or become involved in any other circumstance or situation. We rarely agreed to take an official police report about anything at all that was deemed “civil” in nature, as opposed to criminal. While we would always try to provide some sort of assistance if we could, there were certainly boundaries that we did not venture to cross. Domestic squabbles, unless somebody had been physically hurt, were not taken too seriously. These were deemed to be “private family matters” between the people involved.

Today, law enforcement has become much more service-oriented than it used to be, particularly after the “community policing” model came back into vogue in the late 1990s. “Traditional policing” where officers just rode in cars and waited for a call to come in or something to happen fell out of favor. These days, we have resource officers in all the schools. We have all sorts of crime prevention programs and materials. We do the courtesy vacation home watches. We participate in all kinds of community events and functions throughout the year. We use technology to share information with the public and stay involved. Most of us now patrol more pro-actively, enthusiastically seeking out signs of criminal activity, checking buildings, gathering information and intelligence. Today, we will take a police report on practically anything if asked to, whether it really has anything to do with our designated responsibilities or not. The list goes on.

Although the Office of Sheriff is created by the Arkansas Constitution, and the Sheriff is commissioned by the Governor after election, the Sheriff’s duties and responsibilities have been determined by various acts of the Arkansas General Assembly. Under existing Arkansas statutes, the Sheriff’s primary responsibilities are currently designated as follows:

Arkansas Code 14-14-1301 provides that the Sheriff has the duty to suppress all assaults, batteries, affrays, insurrections, and unlawful assemblies. The Sheriff is to apprehend and commit to jail all offenders. The Sheriff is to execute all legal process from the courts, to attend upon the courts, and to perform all other acts and things required by law. Under Arkansas Code 14-15-501, the Sheriff is designated as a “Conservator of the Peace”.  By statute, the Sheriff is also the "Chief Enforcement Officer of the Courts".

In the policy manual adopted by the Arkansas Criminal Detentions Facility Review Board, the Sheriff is designated as the "Chief Executive Officer" over the county jail or detention facility and has the full management and control over those facilities. These are the broad overall duties and responsibilities assigned to the Sheriff under Arkansas law. These responsibilities take priority over all others. Any other activities undertaken by the Sheriff are peripheral in nature and have lower precedence.

One thing that hasn’t changed, and never will, is that there are always going to be members of the public out there who prey on others in society. The list of victims will keep growing.  In my humble opinion, this is partly because of the over-use of probation and alternative sentencing for those convicted of the more serious crimes or repeat offenders. The frequent lack of any real "punishment" being imposed these days creates a sub-culture of permissiveness and contempt for societal rules and public order. This is witnessed by the fact that about 3 out of 4 prisoners booked into the Baxter County Jail have been there before. It’s not their first rodeo, so to speak. This continues to have a negative effect on deterrence, which results in even more people falling victim to those who should probably be incarcerated. I know it’s expensive to lock people up, but why should someone fear being caught and arrested for committing a public crime when the probable outcome will be nothing more than a term of probation with a sealed and expunged record to follow? I am a strong advocate of “truth in sentencing“, whereby a person convicted of a crime receives a sentence from the court, whatever that may be, and serves it…….all of it, particularly for serious crimes and certainly for repeat offenders too. Not that I advocate overly harsh sentences......I don't. In fact, many first time offenders should probably receive a lenient sentence, unless a serious crime against a person is involved.  Repeat offenders should not.   I simply believe that if someone is sentenced to five years, then they should do five years.  There is little point of sentencing someone to five years if, in fact, they will only do 6 months or less.  Just sentence them to 6 months in the first place and be done with it.  The same end result has been accomplished.  Of course this is just my opinion based upon how I see things.

There’s several things I miss about the earlier days. Topping the list would be not having to carry an annoying cell phone or pager around 24/7. Seems like people have the mind set these days that there is no way society could possibly function without cell phones. True, they’re a great tool when you really need them, but do we have to be talking or texting on them constantly? My first cell phone was a “bag phone”. The thing was really bulky, plugged into the cigarette lighter of the car, had a large corded handset, a weak signal, and cost something like 35 cents per minute to use in addition to your monthly fee. Needless to say, it was used sparingly and judiciously. I kind of wish it was still that way now.

Alas, though, we must move forward and not back in time! I wonder what the future has in store for Arkansas law enforcement?

Capt. Jeff Lewis,
Chief Deputy