Localism and the Creation of a State Police in Arkansas

By Lindsey, Michael G. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Localism and the Creation of a State Police in Arkansas


Lindsey, Michael G., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


EFFORTS TO CREATE STATE POLICE FORCES in the United States during the first four decades of the twentieth century faced a number of practical and ideological obstacles. This proved especially true in the South where state governments tended to be poorer than their northern counterparts and thus less able to afford the cost of such a force. A more important factor working against the creation of state police forces was the South's traditional preference for local control. This preference for localism, or, as Edward Ayers more precisely described it, "localistic republicanism," opposed any attempts, no matter how noble minded, to invest an outside entity with authority over community affairs.1 The clearest expression of Arkansans' longstanding desire for local control can be seen in the 1874 state constitution, which has been described by one scholar of Arkansas politics as "specifically designed to protect citizens from possible oppression by their own state government." "Pervasive distrust of government," Diane Blair said, "is expressed in almost every section of the 1874 document."2 The document, for example, sharply limited the governor's power to appoint officials and allowed his vetoes to be overridden by a simple majority, while rendering the legislature a part-time institution with strictly limited taxing authority. With a constitution that marginalized state government, power and influence fell to local elites who wielded a significant amount of control over elected officials at the local and state levels.3

That Arkansans proved particularly stubborn in their adherence to localistic republicanism is suggested by the fact that Arkansas remained one of the few states without a statewide law enforcement agency in January 1935. Tracing the repeated efforts to create a state police force shows just how deep this ideology ran, even though such a body, like many other Progressive-era agencies, had the potential to provide numerous benefits for the state's residents. The ultimate success of the state police movement, therefore, represented a significant turning point, both symbolic and actual, in Arkansans' understanding of state government and its role in their daily lives.

As 1935 dawned, few obvious signs existed that Arkansans' suspicion of a statewide police force would be overcome, especially considering the dire financial straits in which many of the state's residents found themselves. Arkansas had never been a rich state and the decline of cotton prices in the 192Os coupled with the advent of the Great Depression in 1929 led to economic and social disaster by the early 1930s. The outlook for impoverished Arkansans darkened even further in late 1934 when the Federal Emergency Relief Administration threatened to cut off all federal assistance to more than 400,000 people within the state unless the legislature committed $1.5 million in matching funds by March 1935.4

While resolving the state's financial crisis and locating matching funds were the most pressing issues facing the governor and the legislature as the fiftieth session of the General Assembly gathered in January 1935, another matter promised to generate a tremendous amount of statewide interest and debate: the attempt to repeal prohibition within the state. For Gov. J. M. Futrell, the issues of state finance, liquor, and the creation of a state police force were tightly intertwined. Legalizing the consumption, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol had the potential to provide a tremendous inflow of new revenue through the levying of excise taxes, avoiding the political damage that a property tax increase could inflict. Yet Futrell clearly doubted the state had the means to adequately regulate such a system. He also recognized the current legal system's deficiencies in adequately and impartially enforcing state laws and argued that the best way to correct them was through the creation of a state police force. He told one supporter, "There are some sheriffs who are trustworthy-some of them are not. …

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