The Nineteenth Century

San Antonio was chartered in January 1837 as an incorporated city under a town council form of government. In 1846, the Town Council created the post of city marshal with a monthly salary of $50. City marshals changed frequently in the nineteenth century at the will of the mayor, a city official elected every two years. Between 1846 and 1900, the city had twenty-nine men in this position; their average term was less than twenty-three months. The first marshal, James Dunn, served less than a month.

In 1857, the so-called Cart War erupted between Texas and Mexican teamsters on the cargo routes connecting San Antonio and gulf ports. In response to violent turmoil, the city added an assistant marshal to the law enforcement staff. In 1861, the Civil War began and Texas seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States. At the end of the war in 1865, all city officials including the city marshal were ousted from office; military occupation leaders replaced them with loyal officials. For the most part of the 1860s, federal and state officials controlled the city’s law enforcement.

The post-Civil War reconstruction brought prosperity to San Antonio in the last three decades of the century. The city’s population reached 53,321 in 1900, an increase of more than fourteen times from a population of 3,488 in 1850. San Antonio was the largest city in Texas between 1840 and 1910.

John Dobbin was appointed marshal in January 1873 and served six years. It was the longest term served up to that time. During this period, the San Antonio police transformed from a cowboy-type group into an organized police department. Officers were uniformed and required to wear a shield and conceal their firearms under the uniform coat.

An Age of Modernization and Professionalism

Though the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) entered the twentieth century on horseback, it was greeted with an ever increasing presence of automobiles and the need for traffic enforcement. In 1910, the department purchased a new Franklin air-cooled automobile and motorcycles for patrol, marking the beginning of a motor fleet. In 1924, the department retired its last police horse. In the 1930s, SAPD had its first four high-speed emergency autos and equipped all patrol vehicles with two-way radios; a police radio broadcasting station was built at headquarters. By the end of the fifth decade, the department had an aerial surveillance unit and an urban expressway system.

SAPD started eight-hour shifts and created a “Manual of Directives” in 1917. Some of the rules included shaving every other day, no smoking between 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m., and never sitting down while on duty. Beginning in 1929, all SAPD officers were required to be fingerprinted. In 1933, SAPD officers had a new badge featuring a shield and a fine image of the Alamo with the officer’s number and the words ”San Antonio Police Department.” This has been the badge of SAPD officers to the current date. In 1939, a formal police academy began its operation and graduated the first class of twenty-four SAPD officers.

During the first half of the twentieth century, eighteen men served as the city’s police chief; five of them stayed on the position for three years or longer. In 1951, the city council shifted to a council manager form of government. The new management model augmented the stability of the position of police chief. George W. Bichsel was appointed chief in 1953 and served nineteen years; only five other men served as chief for the rest of the century.

As the city’s population and traffic grew rapidly, SAPD responded with expansion in both human resources and facilities, particularly in the 1950s. The number of sworn officers grew from 370 in 1954 to 516 in 1958, averaging almost a 10% increase annually.

In 1957, police consultant Donald S. Leonard conducted a survey study and presented the results and his 147 recommendations to the SAPD and city council in a 350-page report. As a result, a $6 million bond issue was approved in 1958 for a new jail and new police headquarters building. In the same year, SAPD relocated its communications to a spacious new communications center with modern equipment and separate dispatchers’ booths. In addition, the department adopted a two-frequency radio operation, expanded crime laboratory, and increased support staff.

The modernization of SAPD continued in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s. The department started using polygraph for lie detection in 1966, breathalyzer for blood alcohol level analysis in 1967, radar for monitoring traffic in 1973, and computer-aided dispatch in 1974. The 911 service became operational in 1979. In the same year, its computer system became linked to the Texas Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center. The Regional Crime Lab was created as a unit of SAPD in 1973; a mobile crime lab was added in 1976. SAPD’s Helicopter Unit was also established in the 1970s.

Embracing Community Policing

SAPD began to decentralize patrol functions to six substations in the mid-1980s. A series of community policing programs followed and continued into the 1990s. Downtown foot patrol began in 1986. Officers on bicycles joined foot patrol officers in 1990, forming the Downtown Foot and Bicycle Patrol Unit. The bike officers may wear special SAPD bicycle uniforms with shorts in summer and dark fatigue trousers in winter. Patrol bikes are equipped with headlamps and reflectors for the officer’s safety and with a back rack and carry case. Like their counterparts riding automobiles, bike officers carry radios; many also take with them hand-held mobile data units. In 2005, the bicycle fleet had sixty bikes and a full-time civilian mechanic in charge of their maintenance.

Among other community policing programs were Family Assistance Crisis Teams (FACT, 1988), Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E., 1988), Alamo City Heat Band (1988), Cellular on Patrol (1993), Citizen Police Academy (1994), San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE, 1995), Victims Advocacy Section (1995), and Volunteers in Policing (VIP, 1997).

Partnership with citizens has interested not only individuals but the business community as well. Zachary Construction Company mandated, for example, that as a requirement of employment, all security employees of the company enroll in the SAPD’s eleven-week Citizens Police Academy. In 1998, the National League of Cities presented an award of Excellence in Community Policing to SAPD for its web page, which was first published in 1996 and has since been expanded and updated. Through the increased utilization of volunteers, SAPD has been able to increase its visibility and better serve the community. The programs have been particularly valuable in the wake of the September 11,2001, terrorist attacks, when budget constraints were felt by law enforcement agencies in large cities across the country.

Minorities and Women

San Antonio’s population grew from 406,811 to more than 1.2 million between 1954 and 2004, when the city was ranked the second largest in Texas and the eighth largest in the United States. In these fifty years, SAPD expanded from 370 sworn officers and 67 civilians to 2,008 sworn officers and 480 full-time civilians; its salary budget grew from $1.5 million to $190 million. In 2000, 68% of the city’s population was minority, including more than 58% with a Hispanic origin, while 48% of the city’s sworn officers were minorities. SAPD’s first female officer was hired in 1900 to monitor female prisoners. In 2000, 6% of the officers were women; it was the lowest female rate among the police departments of sixty-two large American cities (serving a population larger than 250,000). In 2005, 7% of SAPD officers were femaleā€”a 1% increase in five years.

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