UA Little Rock grad uncovers history of oldest state law enforcement agency in Arkansas

Grad Cody Besett stands between two Arkansas Highway Patrol vehicles. Photo by Ben Krain.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock graduate has honored his family’s legacy by devoting his graduate research to uncovering the history of the Arkansas Highway Police. 

Cody Besett, 27, of Rogers, graduated May 11 with a Master of Arts in public history with an emphasis in archives and digital collections. Since his father and grandfather were both officers with the Arkansas Highway Police, he was inspired to write his thesis about the state law enforcement agency.

“I have a personal tie to the Arkansas Highway Police,” Besett said. “My grandfather retired from the agency many years ago, and my father will retire from there in a few years. My dad thought it was interesting, but he knew it would be quite an undertaking.”

Besett wanted to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the formation of the agency but found it difficult to locate official documents related to the agency.

“My father gave me contacts for retired officers and administrators, and I did some oral histories with them. That was very beneficial because some of the official documents don’t exist,” he said. “The Center for Arkansas History and Culture has some records. There was an auditor in the 1950s who complained that the agency didn’t keep records long enough. There have been many iterations of this agency, but there are not many official records. My greatest source was a Highway Department magazine that was put out by the employees.”

The Arkansas Highway Police is the oldest state law enforcement agency in Arkansas. Established as the State Road Patrol in 1929, its duties involve speed enforcement, protection of the highways, hazardous materials enforcement, and federal motor carrier safety.

“Actions of state law enforcement agencies, like the AHP, have made a measured impact on the history of 20th century Arkansas,” he said. “The AHP has played a less visible role at times, but one that is important to the safety, construction, and maintenance of the highway system and drivers in Arkansas.”

In 1933, the agency was transferred to the Revenue Department. When the State Road Patrol dissolved in 1937, the enforcement duties were split between inspectors with the Arkansas Highway Department and Arkansas State Police officers. The enforcement of weight standards was transferred from the Revenue Department to the Weights and Standards Division of the Arkansas State Police in 1953. A decade later, the division was transferred back to the Highway Department. The current Arkansas Highway Police Division of the Highway Department was created in 1979. In 1989, the Transportation Safety Agency transferred to the Highway Department and an additional 34 officers to the Arkansas Highway Police.

One figure that  Besett found particularly vital to the history of the Arkansas Highway Police was John Bailey, who spent 27 years in Arkansas law enforcement and served as both chief of the Arkansas Highway Police and director of the Arkansas State Police.

“Chief John Bailey is the only officer in my knowledge to serve as the head officer of both the highway and state police in Arkansas,” Besett said. “He worked very hard to build the image of the Arkansas Highway Police. He emphasized hiring educated officers. He used standardized training for police officers and wanted to use the most up-to-date training tactics. He took his ideas on recruitment and training when he became chief of the Arkansas State Police.”

While there have been calls over the years to merge the Arkansas Highway Police with the Arkansas State Police, Besett said the agency’s unique duties have kept it alive over the decades.

“Arkansas is very unique in that we have two major state police forces, and they are not under the same umbrella,” he said. “In my opinion, it is the state highway police’s specialization that makes them special and keeps them from getting absorbed by the state police.”

Besett earned his bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Lyon College in Batesville. He worked as a social studies teacher in Farmington until 2017, when his wife got a job in Little Rock after finishing medical school.

While at UA Little Rock, Besett has gained valuable experience as researcher and interviewer with the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, where he conducted oral history interviews with women in Arkansas. He also interned with the Arkansas State Library, where he was responsible for making digital scans of historic state documents for preservation efforts. He feels he has gained the most experience working as a graduate assistant in the Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

“I knew I wanted to go back to school, and I chose UA Little Rock. I’ve really enjoyed my two graduate assistantships,” he said. “The value of those positions has certainly kept me here. The program at the Center for Arkansas History and Culture has really ticked off all the boxes for everything I need to learn to become an archivist. Dr. Deborah Baldwin sat down with each of us and reviewed our resumes. I feel like I am fully prepared to apply for full-time positions after working my two graduate assistantships.”

Now that his graduate education is complete, Besett plans to work in archival sciences. He also enjoys his work as an archival digitization specialist with Ancestry.com, where he captures digital images of microfilm records to assist people looking for vital records in Arkansas, including birth, marriage, death, and divorce certificates.

In the upper right photo, Cody Besett stands between two Arkansas Highway Patrol vehicles. Photo by Ben Krain. 

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