Maryland State Police, at Barrack J, Annapolis (2015)

In the United States, the state police is a police body unique to each U.S. state, having statewide authority to conduct law enforcement activities and criminal investigations. In general, state police officers or highway patrol officers, known as state troopers, perform functions that do not fall within the jurisdiction of the county sheriff (Vermont being a notable exception), such as enforcing traffic laws on state highways and interstate expressways, overseeing the security of the state capitol complex, protecting the governor, training new officers for local police forces too small to operate an academy and providing technological and scientific services. They support local police and help to coordinate multi-jurisdictional task force activity in serious or complicated cases in those states that grant full police powers statewide.

A general trend has been to bring all of these agencies under a state-level Department of Public Safety. Additionally, they may serve under different state departments, such as the Highway Patrol under the state Department of Transportation and the marine patrol under the Department of Natural Resources. Twenty-three U.S. states use the term "State Police." Forty-nine states have a State Police agency or its equivalent, with Hawaii being the only state with a Sheriff Division of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety with statewide jurisdiction.


The Texas Rangers are the earliest form of state law enforcement in the United States, first organized by Stephen F. Austin in 1823. The original ranger force consisted of ten men charged with protecting settlers from Native American attacks. Though the rangers of this era are today considered law enforcement officers, they rarely wore badges and were little more than volunteers; the Mexican military was officially in charge of law enforcement in the then-Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. The Rangers later served as a paramilitary force on the U.S.-Mexico border and in several armed military conflicts, including the Texas Revolution, the Mexican–American War, and the American Civil War. They continued to fill basic law enforcement and frontier protection roles until the close of the "wild west" era. In the early 1900s, they transformed into a criminal investigative agency. The history and legacy of the Texas Rangers has spawned numerous depictions in popular culture. The colloquial image of a Texas Ranger "always [getting] their man" has likewise made the Rangers a revered and highly competitive agency within law enforcement, with fewer than 1 in 100 applicants being considered for a single position.

The Pennsylvania State Police force emerged in the aftermath of the anthracite mine strike of 1902, in Pennsylvania. The passage of legislation on May 2, 1905, did not provoke controversy because it was quietly rushed through the mine-owner dominated legislature, but the strike-breaking role of the new police elicited strong opposition from organized labor, who likened them to the repressive Russian cossacks under the tsar.[1] President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a former President of the New York City Police Commission, noted that the Pennsylvania State Police were intended to replace the "infamous" Coal and Iron Police, the private company police used to counter union attacks on private property:

When the laboring masses rocked in mortal combat with the vested interest, the State stepped in to prove her impartial justice by selling her authority into the vested interests' hands! ... whenever the miners elected to go out on strike ... they invariably found the power of the State bought, paid for, and fighting as a partisan on their employers' side. Nor was there any attempt made to do this monstrous thing under mask of decency.[2]

Roosevelt's assertions notwithstanding, the Iron and Coal Police continued to operate in increasing numbers into the 1930s.

The formation of the New York State Police force on April 11, 1917, was done amidst controversy and public debate, and the legislation creating it passed by only one vote.[3] Proponents of a proposal to establish the New York State Police depicted state police as the policemen-soldiers of an impartial state in labor disputes, and saw in them no gendarmerie, intimating that labor's opposition was "un-American".[4] Instead, they were to be more like the trooper police of Australia, both of which had a much more respectable reputation than the maligned forces evoked by trade unionists.[4] Outside of Pennsylvania, the new state police were also established to free up the National Guard from strikebreaking duties, which was extensive in the later 19th century and early decades of the 20th.

The strikebreaking demands on the New York state police decreased over time and their mandate modernized with the creation of the inter-state highway system and proliferation of the automobile. While the early "state troopers", as the name implies, were mounted troops, by mid-century they were fully motorized police forces..

Two years later on June 19, 1919 the newly formed West Virginia State Police (WVSP) was formed to combat and put down the rising violence of organized labor[dubious ][neutrality is disputed] in the coal and mining industry. 3 West Virginia State Troopers were killed in the two years it took to put down the uprising.[unbalanced opinion?] The WVSP was also used very heavily during the prohibition era for hunting down and destroying moonshine stills/operations throughout the mountainous and rural areas of West Virginia, which resulted in some deaths of WVSP Troopers.[unbalanced opinion?] WVSP is the 4th oldest State Police agency in the United States of America. Governor John Jacob Cornwell was insistent upon having a State Police force which he said, "was mandatory in order for him to uphold the laws of our state." Part of the compromise was the name of the organization: "West Virginia Department of Public Safety" was the official name until 1995 when the name was changed to "West Virginia State Police" during the legislative session.

The federal government in the 1920s was generally distrustful of southern states establishing state police, fearing the agencies would be used to oppress black citizens from voting and exercising their civil rights. Additionally, southern states were non-union and had little need for such state police, as did some northern mining states. During this time the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was also on a resurgence. In response, the southern states established agencies to regulate the increasing problems related to motor vehicles and highway safety, such as licensure compliance, vehicle registration, speed enforcement, vehicular equipment safety, vehicle insurance laws and drunken driving. Over time, these agencies were vested with general police powers, but remained focused primarily on highway and vehicular law enforcement.

North Carolina for example established a DMV motor vehicle theft investigations unit in 1921 to combat a rising problem with car theft, but the state realized a need for a larger, uniformed highway patrol agency to solely enforce traffic laws statewide. Local NC sheriffs did not have the personnel, resources or training to do so during that era, but did not want their powers usurped by a per-se state police agency. Thus, the NC State Highway Patrol was established on July 1, 1929. Its original command staff was sent to the Pennsylvania State Police Academy for training. Upon completion, these lieutenants and a captain returned to NC and started the SHP with a training camp for new recruits at Camp Glenn, a WW1 abandoned army post in Morehead City. Chartered to enforce traffic laws only, in the early 1930s the NCSHP had added in its charter that it had powers to deal with among other crimes, bank robbery. This was done at the request of the federal government, so that local states could assist the FBI during the rash of bank robberies in the gangster era of the Great Depression in the 1930s. During this time, the FBI issued 100 spare Thompson .45 caliber sub-machineguns to the NCSHP, to prepare NC troopers to help the FBI combat the rash epidemic of bank robberies at the time. The expected scores of bank robberies never occurred in NC, instead being an epidemic confined to the sparsely-populated and vast areas of the Southwest, Midwest and Great Plains states from Texas to Minnesota. The guns were kept in the main SHP armory in Raleigh and never issued. The weapons were returned to the Federal government in the mid-1980s.

In 1919 Virginia established a motor vehicle enforcement agency and it was established as state police in 1932. Kentucky established a highway patrol in 1935 and it was established as state police in 1948, but these states, located on the border of the previous Civil War south, were more under the watchful eye of the federal government than were deeper southern states. The only deep south, former Confederate State to have a true state police agency is Louisiana. The Louisiana State Police also first started out as a highway patrol agency but in 1936 it was established as a state police, at the desire and influence of the late Governor Huey Long, who used the troopers as a powerful body guard force. Long is often called one of the most powerful Democratic politicians in US history.

Types of state police agencies

In many states, the state police are known by different names: the various terms used are "State Police", "Highway Patrol", "State Highway Patrol", "State Patrol", and "State Troopers". However, the jurisdictions and functions of these agencies are usually the same, regardless of title. Some agencies' names are actually misnomers with respect to the work regularly done by their members. All but two state police entities use the term "trooper" to refer to their commissioned members; California and New Mexico are the lone exceptions, using the term "officer" instead. New Mexico has commissioned and certified volunteer State Troopers in the New Mexico Mounted Patrol, a self-governing state agency, separate from the New Mexico State Police. (Until 2015, Arizona also used "officer", but has since switched to "trooper".) These titles are usually historical and do not necessarily describe the agency's function or jurisdiction. Colloquial or slang terms for a state trooper may include "troop," "statey," "stater," or—in trucker slang—"Smokey", "full-grown bear", or "Polar Bear" if the police vehicle is all white. Some regional slang terms also exist for specific agencies.

Alaska and Arkansas are the only states with both a highway patrol and a state police. The Alaska Highway Patrol is a bureau of the Alaska State Troopers while the Arkansas Highway Patrol is the uniformed patrol division of the Arkansas State Police. A separate Arkansas Highway Police[5] exists as part of the Arkansas Department of Transportation but exists as a work-zone and commercial vehicle enforcement agency. The New Hampshire Highway Patrol, also a commercial vehicle enforcement agency, has since been merged into the New Hampshire State Police as Troop G - Commercial Vehicle Enforcement.[6]

The California State Police (CSP) was a division of the California Department of General Services, and was a security police agency which merged with the California Highway Patrol in 1995; following this, the California Highway Patrol assumed security police responsibilities in addition to its highway patrol duties.

Pennsylvania formed a State Highway Patrol in 1923 within the Department of Highways to enforce the vehicle laws of Pennsylvania's burgeoning highway system. The State Highway Patrol was merged with the State Police on June 29, 1937.[7]

The Texas State Police was formed during the administration of Texas Governor Edmund J. Davis on July 22, 1870, to combat crime associated with Reconstruction statewide in Texas. It worked primarily against racially based crimes, and included black police officers, which caused howls of protest from former slave owners (and future segregationists). It was dissolved by order of the legislature on April 22, 1873.[8] The Texas Highway Patrol currently performs statewide police functions.

State police

An Oregon State Police vehicle (2012)

Though many forces use the term "state police," its meaning is not consistent from agency to agency. In many places, it is a full-service law enforcement agency which responds to calls for service, investigates criminal activity, and regularly patrols high-crime areas. On the other hand, some state police agencies, despite the name, are strictly tasked with traffic enforcement, though their members usually retain full police powers; the Arkansas State Police is an example.

States with state police

See also: § List of State Police agencies

Highway patrol and highway police

A California Highway Patrol vehicle (2015)

See also: Highway patrol § United States

Several agencies use the term "highway patrol," though this name can be misleading in some cases. Some highway patrol agencies are, as their name implies, dedicated to enforcing state traffic laws on the highways; a few are full-service state police agencies which regularly respond to calls and conduct inner-city policing functions; and yet others are a bridge, focusing primarily on traffic enforcement but providing general policing services when and where necessary. Their primary concern is enforcing motor vehicle laws, but they also assist with other incidents. These include riots, prison disturbances, labor related disturbances, and providing security at sporting events.

States with highway patrol

See also: § List of state police agencies

States with state highway patrol

States with state patrol

States with highway police

Statewide policing in Hawaii

Maui Police Car
Honolulu Police Cars
Individual county police departments in Hawaii have responsibility for the state's highway patrol functions. Maui County (left, 2007) and Honolulu County (right, 2015) police vehicles

Unlike the other 49 states and territories, Hawaii is not a contiguous area of land, but rather an archipelago, consisting primarily of eight major islands. Because of its geography, it is impossible to use roads to get from one local/municipal jurisdiction to another. As a consequence, Hawaii is the only state that does not have a specifically named state police/highway patrol force. Highway patrol functions are instead carried out within each of the state's five counties, which are served by four police forces (Kalawao County is administered as part of Maui County):

The Department of the Attorney General includes an Investigations Division which assists the department’s civil, criminal, and administrative cases.[11]

The Department of Law Enforcement (through its Sheriff, Narcotics, and Criminal Investigations Divisions) performs the security policing tasks usually undertaken by a dedicated state police force or Capitol police agency, such as airport security, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, executive protection and other specialized duties since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, in addition to providing bailiffs to the judicial apparatus.

The television series Hawaii Five-O featured a fictional state police detective unit in Hawaii. This was not a uniformed police force, but instead functioned more as a state bureau of investigation.

Territorial police

Three of the five permanently inhabited territories of the United States have a police department with territory-wide authority:

List of state police agencies

See also: State police § United States

Agencies without comment are independent agencies.

Other state police agencies

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ Ray, Gerda W. (Spring 1995). "From Cossack to Trooper: Manliness, Police Reform, and the State". Journal of Social History (28): 566.
  2. ^ Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in Ray, Gerda W. (Spring 1995). "From Cossack to Trooper: Manliness, Police Reform, and the State". Journal of Social History (28): 570.
  3. ^ Ray, Gerda W. (Spring 1995). "From Cossack to Trooper: Manliness, Police Reform, and the State". Journal of Social History. 28 (3): 565. doi:10.1353/jsh/28.3.565.
  4. ^ a b Ray, Gerda W. (Spring 1995). "From Cossack to Trooper: Manliness, Police Reform, and the State". Journal of Social History (28): 570.
  5. ^ "Arkansas Highway Police". Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  6. ^ "Troop G, Field Operations - Division of State Police, NH DOS". Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  7. ^ "PSP". Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  8. ^ "STATE POLICE".
  9. ^ Wood DS, Rosay AB, Postle G, Tepas K. 2011. Police Presence, Isolation, and Sexual Assault Prosecution. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22(3): 330-349. doi: 10.1177/0887403410375980
  10. ^ "Become a Texas State Trooper | Department of Public Safety".
  11. ^ State of Hawaii Attorney General's Investigations Division
  12. ^ "Organizational Chart". Retrieved 2019-01-28.
  13. ^ "State of Rhode Island: Division of Sheriffs".
  14. ^ "NJDEP-State Park Police". January 25, 2012. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  15. ^ "New York State Park Police - NYS Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation".
  16. ^ [1] Archived July 31, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ "Secretary of State Police". Retrieved September 20, 2012.