Alabama Department of Public Safety

Alabama State Troopers at the Capitol The Alabama Department of Public Safety is a division within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. It began as the Alabama Highway Patrol (AHP) in 1936. Over the ensuing years, it has expanded to consist of the Administrative Division, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, the Driver License Division, the Highway Patrol, the Protective Services Division, and the Service Division. The agency was rolled into the newly created Alabama Law Enforcement Agency in a consolidation effort that ended in 2015.

The original Highway Patrol was created with 75 staff on January 10, 1936, by Gov. Bibb Graves. Members underwent a 10-day training course in Montgomery with a faculty comprised of members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Treasury Department, National Automobile Theft Bureau, Department of Revenue, and Fire Marshal’s office along with state toxicologists, attorneys, and judges. Participants learned basic law-enforcement techniques and how to operate the motorcycles that initially made up the bulk of patrol vehicles.

Alabama Public Safety Officers, 1936 To finance the patrols, the state enacted legislation requiring driver licenses for all drivers in Alabama in 1935; licenses cost 50 cents, and proceeds went directly to the AHP. Patrol officers covered wide areas of the state and enforced all types of traffic laws. They made more than 7,000 arrests in their first year, largely traffic stops, but the number also included 689 arrests for driving while intoxicated and 60 for stolen vehicles. In addition, the new department took on an education mission that it maintains to this day, giving numerous presentations to young drivers about vehicle operation and safety. By 1938, the number of officers had expanded to 135.

On March 8, 1939, the Alabama legislature passed a bill establishing the Department of Public Safety, consisting of the Highway Patrol, Driver License Division, Accident Prevention Bureau, and Mechanical and Equipment Division. Driver’s license tests were initiated, with a two-year renewal requirement. At the same time, Public Safety Director T. Weller Smith tried to establish a radio system for the patrol, but that initial attempt failed. In 1944, a radio communication system was established, ensuring that patrol officers could contact at least one of the 13 stations (located in Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Anniston, Decatur, Demopolis, Dothan, Evergreen, Gadsden, Huntsville, Opelika, Selma, and Tuscaloosa) throughout the state.

Wartime Road Sign During World War II, the Highway Patrol’s Investigation and Identification Division assisted the U.S. Selective Service system in tracking down young men avoiding military service as well as assisting the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement organizations when asked. Although briefly abolished in 1949, this division was reformed in 1950 by Gov. James E. Folsom Sr. It was added as a fifth separate division of Public Safety in 1951. That same year, the maximum speed limit on Alabama highways was raised from 35 to 60 miles an hour in an attempt to reduce traffic fatalities.

In 1953, patrol officer training for the Highway Patrol received a huge boost with the opening of the Alabama Police Academy. Officer candidates received training from a wide variety of law enforcement organizations, including the FBI and the Treasury Department. Another milestone was reached in 1955 when DPS was added to the annual budget by the state legislature and no longer had to depend solely on the revenue that it generated.

Gov. Patterson and Highway Patrol During the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s, DPS was involved in some of the most significant events of the era. In 1963, under director Albert Lingo and Gov. George Wallace, the name of patrol officers was changed to state troopers. State troopers flanked Gov. Wallace on June 11, 1963, during his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama. On March 7, 1965, state troopers were involved along with other law enforcement agencies in the attack on civil rights demonstrators during Bloody Sunday, a march that had been prompted by the February 1965 shooting death of civil-rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by state trooper James B. Fowler. He was convicted of manslaughter in 2010 and served only five months in prison, due to health issues. Troopers were called on numerous other times to maintain order at demonstrations and protests during this volatile period.

Javelin Police Vehicle In 1972, the Southern Poverty Law Center brought suit against the state to integrate the all-white Alabama State Troopers in the case Paradise v. Allen. Federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered the Department of Public Safety to hire one black trooper for every white trooper until the total percentage of black troopers reached 25. In response, the governor‘s office imposed an unofficial hiring freeze as the case worked its way through to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mieth v. Dothard, a suit brought in 1976, resulted in the abolition of height and weight requirements that had effectively prevented women from becoming state troopers. Clara Zeigler graduated with the class of 1979 and became Alabama’s first woman trooper.

Other developments during this period saw the creation of the Highway Patrol Aviation unit and the first use of radar guns, with a radar-gun certification program being established in 1979. Troopers were deployed during an extended 1977 strike by coal miners; their charge was to prevent personal and property damage and act as a buffer between union and non-union miners to prevent violence. Troopers also were on the front lines of relief efforts after Hurricane Frederic ravaged the Alabama coast in September 1979.

Challenging financial times in the state during the 1980s forced the DPS to take cost-saving measures, including rebuilding older patrol cars instead of buying new ones. The department added services such as the Hazardous Materials Response Team (1985) and the Missing Children Bureau (1985). The Supreme Court upheld Judge Johnson’s decision in Paradise v. Allen in 1987, and the case itself came to a final conclusion in 1995, when the department implemented new testing and hiring procedures for trooper candidates. The department expanded anti-drug efforts through programs such as the Domestic Marijuana Eradication Program and the Felony Awareness Program, and the Patrol Division instituted enhanced training and enforcement aimed at reducing drunk driving in the state.

Alabama Public Safety Officers at 2009 Inauguration Later developments at DPS included a new training facility, located at Wallace Community College Selma. It was created in partnership with the Department of Postsecondary Education so individuals could earn college credits as they trained to become troopers. The ABI added a Cybercrime Unit and implemented a new program so investigators could join the ABI directly. It also partnered with the former Department of Homeland Security to create its Fusion Center to facilitate sharing of intelligence and information between agencies in combatting terrorism and other wide-ranging crimes. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, DPS purchased a Bell 407 helicopter specially equipped for rescue work as part of a new State Trooper Rescue Program. The agency addressed the increasing public safety issue of texting while driving when that activity was outlawed in 2012.

In 2015, DPS was consolidated into the new Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to reduce duplication of services and operating costs. It is one of two new main entities that comprise the ALEA, together with the State Bureau of Investigations. DPS divisions and subunits continue to include the Highway Patrol, which patrols the 70,000 miles of Alabama roadways and oversees the driver license system, and the Marine Police, which oversees and enforces boating registration and safety regulations on Alabama’s many rivers, lakes, and miles of coastline. Also included are the enforcement unit of the Public Service Commission and the revenue enforcement officers of the Department of Revenue. The Department of Public Safety is also home to the Protective Services Unit, which is responsible for protecting dignitaries in the state. Sworn law enforcement officers in the Department of Public Safety are referred to as State Troopers, regardless of their division or subunit.

Further Reading

  • Smith, H. Roy. Alabama Department of Public Safety, 1935-1995: 60th Anniversary Commemorative Album. Charlotte, N.C.: Herb Eaton Publishers, 1995.
  • Spaid, Elizabeth Levitan. “Alabama State Police Turn a Racial Corner.” Christian Science Monitor, 31 October 1995.

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