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of the Road es 75 years of serving the Sooner State


establishment of a grand new tradition and the hosting of small banquets to honor the organization’s rich history, a past that is rooted in the very mythol- ogy of Oklahoma.


Laying a foundation


The OHP was established on April 20, 1937, as the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.


Oklahoma joined the Union in November 1907 and in the ensuing 30 years, the Sooner State experienced three intersecting events that generated the need for a statewide police presence.


The discovery of oil during the early part of the 20th century attracted for- tune hunters with the allure of overnight riches. Increased population—as well as some rise in income levels—combined with the accessibility of Henry Ford’s affordable Model Ts to clog Oklahoma’s roadways.


According to the OHP website, the number of automobiles ballooned from 6,500 in 1912 to more than 600,000 in 1929, leaving local law enforcement with an unmanageable problem. The dramatic increase in automobiles and the lack of oversight resulted in fatalities. By the mid-1920s, more than 500 Oklahomans were losing their lives on the state’s highways each year. (That number is roughly equivalent to modern fatality totals despite the era only having a fraction of the 3.5 million motorists who drove on Oklahoma high- ways in 2011.)


With the illusion of a sea of oil money and a glut of unregulated roadways, a subversive element of criminals began to trickle into the state’s borders. By the 1930s, Oklahoma was a modern day version of the Old West, serving as hotspot for gangsters and criminals. “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, as well as many other criminals, saw Oklahoma ripe with opportunity. They could commit crimes then race across county lines where local authorities no longer had jurisdiction.


Oklahoma’s 10th governor, E.W. Marland, saw the necessity for a statewide police force that could enforce state laws and lobbied the Oklahoma legislature for creation of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. The legislature agreed and by early May 1937 Marland sent out a call for recruits to become Oklahoma’s fi rst highway patrolmen. The inaugural OHP Academy was held on the University of Oklahoma campus, commissioning 85 state troopers.


Within 30 days, a second academy was underway and soon the OHP was at its full force of 125 troopers.


“These troopers laid the foundation for what we do today,” Pettingill said. “They began the reputation of service and protection with a friendly, profes- sional manner.” In the fi rst nine months of patrol duty, troopers issued 288,277 warnings compared with only 5,518 arrests and citations. During the same period, they assisted more than 250,000 disabled motorists. By the beginning of 1941, au- tomobile fatalities were down more than 30 percent. Less than a decade later, OHP became the fi rst law enforcement agency in the United States to utilize aircraft for traffi c enforcement.


Through the decades, the OHP has continued to diversify its responsibilities, while growing into the third largest police force in the state and patrolling roughly 68,000 square miles—including several areas with no roads.


Robust mission


On the morning of Pettingill’s interview with Oklahoma Living, a helicopter with the OHP Aircraft Division had been dispatched to the Wichita Mountain Refuge, near Lawton, to search for lost hikers.


“We found them,” Pettingill reported happily. “They may be 40-year-old mil- itary surplus helicopters but we’ve used them for everything from fi nding lost hikers, tracking down fugitives on the run and saving people during fl oods.” From air to sea, the OHP is the No. 1 marine enforcement group in the state, patrolling 38 lakes and waterways each summer.


Still, Oklahoma’s roadways are their primary focus, and they have special groups that monitor commercial vehicles, such as semi-trucks, and heavy- traffi c areas.


“Oklahoma has major arteries that move a lot of traffi c and a lot of people,” Pettingill said. “If you’re moving east or west through the United States, you often go through Oklahoma. It’s important that we are focused on our state, but we play a part in national protection as well.”


And all of the patrolling is conducted despite the weather. “We don’t reduce services, we increase them when there is inclement weather,” Pettingill said. “We are always open. Fire, snow, tornadoes, fl oods—OHP troopers have as- sisted Oklahomans through every type of natural and man-made disaster.”


Continued on Page 16


Former Trooper Michael Houston conducting traffi c in early 1980s. OHP’s Riot Squad during a training in the 1960s. FEBRUARY 2012 15


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