The difference between a typical day in the life of a police officer now and that of a police
officer in 1900 is drastic. At least a little understanding of those changes will be necessary in
order to appreciate the challenges they faced.
Some West Virginia cities had their own police departments, though they were much smaller
in number than today. There was no State Police then. They would not become a factor for
a couple more decades. Rural law enforcement was handled by elected Sheriffs and their
appointed deputies. Sheriffs were elected for a four year term and could not be reelected.
None of their deputies were allowed to succeed them. And because the deputies were
politically appointed, the new sheriff was likely to replace all the old deputies with his own
The result was that Sheriff’s and their deputies did not have enough time in office to really
become seasoned officers. There were some fine people serving in those positions but they
were not usually very experienced. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Sheriffs were
permitted a second consecutive term. It was also in the early 1970’s that deputy sheriffs in
larger counties were given civil service protection. From that point on a new sheriff inherited
the deputies that were already serving. Deputies began to see this as a career and the counties
began to benefit from more experienced officers.
The Justice of the Peace was the forerunner to today’s Magistrate. They were elected in
small magisterial districts around the county and were usually part-time. They were not
replaced by Magistrates until 1977. The Justices of the Peace were serviced by Constables.
The Constables would serve a summons, subpoena, warrant, or any other court document
issued by the Justice of the Peace. They also found themselves handling other law
enforcement duties at times. The office of Constable was done away with along with the
Justice of the Peace. Both these offices were paid by the piece, and not paid a salary. If they
did a lot of business they made a good wage. If they did no business they made no wages.
The system was ripe for corruption and there were some good reasons for dissolving it.
Training in those days ranged from poor to nonexistent. It was not unusual for a city police
officer, deputy sheriff or constable to be sworn in and immediately sent out on his own. The
State Police held their first class at the State Police Academy in 1953. They began offering
Basic Police Training to local officers in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Even then, many
local departments were reluctant to send their officers there. They had to pay the officers
their wages while they were there and were not getting any work out of them. They were also
concerned that if they allowed their officers to become too well trained they would move on
to a better paying department.
In 1981 the state made the Basic Police Training class at the academy or its equivalent
mandatory for all police officers. This concluded a very important decade of progress in the
development of the law enforcement professional.
An officer today sitting in an air conditioned cruiser with access to a radio, computer, and cell
phone has some advantages over their forerunners. And some disadvantages. The most
notable disadvantage with today’s speed in communication and transportation is that you
arrive on the scene of an incident while it is still heated and very dangerous. But you are
probably going to be able to get some help there quickly. And you are much better equipped.
Body armor as we know it was not available. Most officers furnished their own weapons and
they were usually six shot revolvers. There were no speed loaders. They could be deadly
enough. But they cannot be favorably compared with the fire power most officers carry on
their person today.
Officers would ride horses, walk, or take a train. At times an officer might take a boat or train
to a remote area, then rent a horse at a livery stable to continue on their response to a call. A
little later we would see a limited use of motorcycles and automobiles. They often had no
way to call for help. They often would have had no one to call anyway. Knowing they
would be on their own, many officers would choose to carry mining cable or an ax handle
instead of a traditional nightstick. They were more effective in a fight for your life and they
offered something of a psychological edge.
There were no dash cameras, no computers, no DNA testing, no crime lab, no tasers, no
pepper spray, and probably, no medical help anywhere near. It was tough work being done
by tough people. It still is, but in different ways.
What a Difference a Century Makes