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Why Texas' First Attempt at a Statewide Police Force Was a Crooked, Bloody Mess

Burley Auction Group

Today marks the 142nd anniversary of the state’s repeal of the Texas State Police. Like all states, Texas has a statewide law enforcement agency in the Texas Department of Public Safety’s state troopers, but the first iteration of the concept, which lasted only three years, was as unabashedly radical as it was a bloodstained, crooked and altogether haphazardly assembled endeavor.

The group of white, black and Hispanic men who fought on both sides of the Civil War – some were criminals, others were law enforcement who went on to serve in the Texas Rangers – were an incredibly effective force.

In their first month, the police made 978 arrests, according to the governor, of which 239 were for murder or attempted murder – the year prior, the state handily led the nation in deaths. They also enforced Reconstruction-era policies designed to protect African-Americans that were largely derided statewide, like guarding polling locations. However, they were also accused of murdering suspects, were essentially an illegal military extension of the state’s top office and were led by a corrupt, embezzling Adjutant General.

The Texas State Police was created by Gov. Edmund J. Davis in 1870 in the same piece of legislation that hastened the creation of what would become the Texas National Guard, the Police Act of 1870. Officers were paid as much as $125 a month and the governor’s experiment with statewide law enforcement never reached its proposed limit of 256 members, with enlistment never rising above the initial 196.

Though they were essentially the governor’s own private army, the TSP were led by the state’s highest military officer, Adjutant General James Davidson. Under Davidson, the police made 6,820 arrests in their first two years and recovered more than $200,000 in stolen property.

Still, they were accused of drunkenness and worse. One of the force’s four founding officers, Capt. Jack Helm, was accused of killing two suspects accused of a minor charge in front of their families. He was suspended by Gov. Davis after the incident came to light, but served on the force until it was dissolved.

In 1872, TSP’s leader, Davidson, was accused of embezzling from the state, requesting more than $37,000 for officer salaries from the treasury and pocketing it.

By 1873, Davis’ experiment had completely lost steam. His embezzlement made defending the project to the legislature virtually untenable. Though, Davis did defend it in his State of the State speech in 1873, even asking for more revenue to pay officers and, strangely enough, for a ban on the open carry of firearms.

Credit Briscoe Center, via Portal for Texas History
A design by former Capt. Jack Helm for a machine that picked worms out of cotton.

Obviously it wasn’t enough. Lawmakers passed the repeal despite an attempt to veto from Gov. Davis. The 18-7 vote was met with applause in the Senate chambers, according to the Houston Telegraph.  The Texas Rangers expanded to takeover statewide patrols, and as the state expanded Texas created the Department of Public Safety in the 1930s.

Davidson was never seen in Texas again. Though he was rumored to have fled to Belgium, he surfaced in 1874 in New Zealand, where he had six children, became a mounted police officer and later killed himself in 1885.

Capt. Jack Helm later moved to Albuquerque, which was then a part of Texas, where he perfected a machine to pick worms out of cotton before being killed by infamous Texan outlaw, and onetime Texas State Police officer, John Wesley Hardin.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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