Arkansas Highway Police
The Arkansas Highway Police is the oldest statewide law enforcement agency in Arkansas and serves as the law enforcement branch of the Arkansas Department of Transportation. The duties of the agency have changed over time, but the emphasis remains on protection of the state’s highway and transportation system. The Highway Police is overseen by an agency director with the rank of chief. The chief serves at the pleasure of the director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation. The Highway Police’s main headquarters are located in Little Rock (Pulaski County) next to the central office of the Department of Transportation. The Highway Police is divided into five districts, each of which is commanded by an officer with the rank of captain.
Vehicle-related fatalities increased in the 1920s with the widespread adoption of the automobile. The Seventh Biennial Report of the Arkansas Highway Commission included recommendations that Highway Department rules and regulations be enacted into law and the commission be given appropriation and authority for enforcement. The 1927 Arkansas General Assembly approved the recommendations. The creation of the Highway Police involved resistance from local law enforcement concerned about the loss of authority from the creation of a state law enforcement entity. To enforce these rules and regulations, the State Road Patrol, precursor to the Arkansas Highway Police, was created in Act 299 of the 1929 legislative session. The State Road Patrol was initially limited to enforcement of the state’s motor laws and laws related to protecting and maintaining the state highway system. This typically involved the collection of fuel and license taxes and enforcement of commercial truck weight limits.
The Road Patrol and its enforcement of highway regulations were transferred to the Arkansas Revenue Department in 1933. The Highway Commission maintained the authority to create traffic and highway regulations. Under the Revenue Department, the Road Patrol increased enforcement of traffic violations to help stem the tide of traffic fatalities.
The Arkansas State Police was created in 1935 as the second state law enforcement agency in Arkansas. The State Police initially shared enforcement of traffic laws and motor vehicle regulations with the Road Patrol but additionally focused on the enforcement of criminal laws and arson investigation. The Road Patrol was deactivated on March 1, 1937, with enforcement duties divided among the State Police and Highway Department. The Road Patrol’s duties carried on with the weight inspectors of the Traffic and Safety Division of the Highway Department. Enforcement of laws was carried out by roving patrol units and permanent weigh stations located at strategic points across the state.
Act 283 of 1943 shifted enforcement of vehicle regulations from the Highway Department back to the Revenue Department. A limited number of Highway Department weight inspectors continued enforcement with State Police patrol units. Act 122 of 1953 consolidated these dispersed enforcement efforts with the creation of the Weights and Standards Division of the State Police. The Weights and Standards Division operated under the State Police from 1953 until July 1, 1963, when it was transferred to the Highway Department. The first chief of Weights and Standards Division was A. Gray Albright. He also became the first superintendent of the State Police in 1935. Gasoline taxes for commercial vehicles were the primary source of revenue collected by officers. Roy Johnson became chief of the Weights and Standards Division in 1957 and served in that role until 1985.
On July 1, 1963, the Weights and Standards Division was transferred to the Highway Department. Officers maintained responsibility for enforcement of commercial vehicle size and weight, as well as the collection of taxes for their operation in Arkansas. Standardized training for new recruits began in 1965 at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Academy in Camden (Ouachita County).
A fifth operating district for the Weights and Standards Division was created in 1972 in West Memphis (Crittenden County). By 1975, Weights and Standards was renamed the Weights Division of the Arkansas Highway Department. The Weights Division became the Arkansas Highway Police (AHP) in 1979 following the passage of Act 192 of 1977.
Chief Roy Johnson retired in 1985, and John Bailey replaced him. Training increased in the 1980s to include radar, drug interdiction, hazardous materials safety, and federal motor carrier safety. AHP officers were also responsible for enforcing the weight distance tax. This tax was passed in 1987 to increase the maximum commercial vehicle weight in Arkansas from 73,280 pounds to 80,000. The Transportation and Safety Agency merged with the Highway Department under Act 67 of 1989. The AHP received sixty-six officers from the merger and responsibility for enforcement of the Arkansas Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program. Under this program, AHP officers were granted the authority to conduct warrantless searches of commercial vehicles to perform routine safety inspections. Chief Bailey left in 1994 to become State Police Director.
The AHP experienced a hiring freeze from August 11, 1993, to August 11, 1998. In the twenty-first century, the AHP continues to enforce the commercial vehicle rules and regulations in Arkansas, with the primary focus of protection of Arkansas highways.
For additional information:
“Act 299.” Acts of Arkansas, 1929. Little Rock: Democrat Printing and Lithographing Co., 1929.
Besett, Cody. “The Arkansas Highway Police: Arkansas’s First State Police.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2019.
Early Arkansas Highway Magazines (1924–2012). Arkansas Department of Transportation. https://www.arkansashighways.com/historic_bridge/early_highway_magazine.aspx (accessed January 17, 2020).
Lindsey, Michael G. The Big Hat Law: Arkansas and Its State Police, 1935–2000. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2008.
Thompson, Jay. Arkansas Highway Police. Arkansas Department of Transportation. https://www.arkansashighways.com/highway_police/highway_police.aspx (accessed January 17, 2020).
Cody L. Besett
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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