The Galveston Police Department
PHOTOS Scott Pena
The Galveston Police Department is the oldest police department in the state of Texas.
During its long history, the department has experienced and worked through countless social reforms and law enforcement changes and has suffered great hardships along the way. In 1837, John Sellers was elected constable, making him the town’s first real law enforcement officer.
Two years later, Galveston was incorporated. Saloon owner Leander H. Westcott was appointed the city’s first marshal, and the Galveston Police Department was established.
Following the Civil War, Union General Charles Griffin, who commanded the military district of Texas during reconstruction, ordered the mayor of Galveston, Capt. James E. Haviland, to dismiss the entire police force and replace it with the general’s own list of men, which included five African Americans. When the mayor refused, he was fired, and Griffin’s plan was implemented. Galveston became the first integrated police department in Texas, and likely most of the South.
Soon afterward, Galveston held its first Mardi Gras. The celebration left a tragic aftermath. Half of the GPD members died of yellow fever, including the police chief and captain of the night watch.
In 1869, the department started using photographs to identify criminals. Then, in 1873, the GPD suffered its first line of duty death, which proved tragic for many reasons.
Officer John T. Ferguson was stabbed in the heart while attempting to arrest James Helms who, distraught over a robbery, had stabbed three people. Another officer was also seriously wounded, but fortunately recovered. At Helms’ murder trial, Officer Ferguson’s son sat behind him and, before the guilty verdict was issued, shot his father’s assailant in the head.
The police department certainly wasn’t immune to the deadly impact of the infamous 1900 hurricane. The largest natural disaster in U.S. history, the hurricane engulfed Galveston Island, killing 6,000 people. Six police officers also perished. With too many bodies to bury, the corpses were weighted and dumped at sea. However, when the bodies washed back up on shore, fearing disease, they were burned. Able-bodied men who refused to assist with the cremations were threatened with execution.
In 1902, with the city still reeling from the devastating impact of the hurricane, construction began on the Galveston Seawall.
Following the city’s storm recovery, day watch and night watch evolved into 24-hour coverage. Officers walked in pairs from fire station to fire station to check in by telegraph first, then later by telephone. Officers were stationed at the causeway, sometimes for days, to block criminal escape. A “Hurry Up,” or paddy wagon, was the first four-wheeled motor vehicle of the department. The detective bureau was also formed. Soon motorcycles and cars were purchased, and in 1915 patrol drivers were assigned.
In the 1930s, the police short-wave radio station, KNGL, opened a 24-hour schedule with a 250-mile transmitter range. Dispatchers were assigned, and on the first day they received eleven calls and made five arrests.
The 1960s was a decade of much change in the country, and Galveston was no different, as the police chief set out to modernize the department. The police academy was reorganized, with increased training from 200 hours to 360. The first fleet of 15 police cars was purchased and equipped with radios, lights, sirens and speakers. Officers were issued new uniforms designed by the chief. GPD begin hiring female dispatchers, and the first female officer was hired.
The next decade saw rapid advancement. K-9 cops went into service, and a SWAT team, marine division and crisis negotiation team were set up. Collective bargaining was instituted, and the department got its first computer.
In 2005, the department moved into its new and current headquarters, the Joe Max Taylor Justice Center.
The department again faced a great challenge when, in 2008, Hurricane Ike, listed as a Category 2 storm, slammed the island, surprising many meteorologists with its force. Law enforcement was housed at the San Luis Hotel and Resort on the seawall for 14 days, working 12-hour shifts.
The Galveston Police Department serves approximately 5,000 citizens, in addition to thousands of year-round visitors. Since its formation, the department has lost 22 officers in the line of duty.
Historical Information Galveston Police Department