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‘Half-baked’ officers a highway menace

volunteer traffic cop

The Delaware State Police originated during the Roaring Twenties. The 20th century’s second decade also gave birth to the immediate precursor of the police department: the Citizens’ Highway Police Reserve Corps (CHPRC). This volunteer force turned out to be ill-equipped to effectively address mounting traffic concerns.

The failed experiment of the CHPRC serves as a vivid case study highlighting the dangers associated with an untrained, undisciplined volunteer force lacking accountability to a clear authority.

To augment the limited resources of the State Highway Police, the State Highway Commission authorized the use of citizen highway police from 1921 to 1923. These unpaid volunteers, serving for a three-month period, had the power to enforce the same laws as paid officers.

The volunteers did not receive the same rigorous training and discipline as professional law enforcement officers. Inadequate training led to excessive use of authority, mishandling of situations, and potential endangerment of lives.

One appointee, William B. Foster, a high-ranking DuPont official, exploited his position to violate speeding laws without consequence. The “Newark Ledger” labeled him “a highway menace.” With no clear superior or accountability structure, such volunteers occasionally abused their power for personal gain.

Asa Bennett, a member of the CHPRC and a Republican state senator from 1920 to 1922, issued more speeding tickets than any other volunteer patrol officer that year. His zeal for issuing tickets could be interpreted as a means to harass political opponents. The lack of a clear chain of command or accountability made the CHPRC susceptible to confusion, inefficiency, and a lack of strategic direction.

CHPRC appointees were often political operatives, suggesting their appointments were based on political favors rather than merit. For example, Frank V. du Pont, son of T. Coleman Du Pont, who funded the construction of Route 13, transitioned directly from the Citizens’ Highway Police Reserve Corps to the Delaware State Highway Commission, eventually becoming chairman. Julia Hays Tallwoman went on to become the national committeewoman for Delaware’s Republican Party after serving in the CHPRC. Clement B. Hallam was a prominent editor of the conservative Wilmington newspaper ‘The Evening Journal,’ known for its strong support of the Republican Party.

Within two years of its formation, the CHPRC was seen by the public as more focused on maintaining political loyalty than enforcing the law. Impartiality was clearly compromised.

“This shows the fallacy,” lamented a ‘Newark Ledger’ editorial, “of having such a citizens corps of men to carry out the law. It is nothing short of lunacy to entrust men to enforce the law when they abuse it for personal indulgence.”

“These half-baked officers are a danger,” the editorial continued. “They act as spies, sneaking up on motorists who may slightly exceed the 30 miles per hour limit on a clear, straight stretch of open highway.”

Professional, well-trained, and disciplined law enforcement, accountable to clear authority and the rule of law, is essential for ensuring public safety.

The establishment of Delaware’s official State Police in 1925, in response to the failures of the Citizens’ Highway Police Reserve Corps, unequivocally acknowledged this principle. There was no turning back.

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