San Antonio Police Department

History of the San Antonio Police Department

A glimpse into the early days of the San Antonio Police Department. Contributions and suggestions are always welcome.


Early law enforcement in San Antonio begins with the alguacils of the Villa de San Fernando de Bexar and progresses to the Texas Rangers, vigilantes, and City Marshals of early San Antonio.

Early San Antonio history can be divided into four areas :

  • 1718-1836 San Antonio de Bexar Under Spain & Mexico
  • 1837-1860 Era of Texas Independence & Early Statehood
  • 1860-1870 San Antonio During Civil War & Reconstruction
  • 1870-1900 San Antonio Becomes a Modern City

Courthouse and Jail aka BatcaveConstruction began in 1850 on the Courthouse and Jail Building, located on the NW corner of Military Plaza. This 2-story building later became known as the "Bat Cave".

Early Police Badge

Police shield in use c.1900

SAPD 1900

San Antonio Police Department c. 1900, on steps of the new City Hall


  • 1870 Population of San Antonio: 12,256
  • 1870 Reconstruction Texas Governor E.J. Davis set up a State Police force under the Police Act, with authority to operate anywhere in the state (known as the "Davis Police")
  • 1872 Police Act overturned. Texas Rangers re-instated
  • 1873 Colt issues its classic .45 Single Action Revolver which soon became the sidearm of choice for Texas lawmen
  • 1873 John Dobbin is appointed Marshal and transforms the police from a frontier, cowboy-type group into an organized, uniformed police department
  • 1875 San Antonio police officers are issued standard uniforms. Police officers are required to wear a shield and to conceal their firearms under their uniform coats.
  • 1876 The new Texas Constitution goes into effect
  • 1876 Barbed wire introduced to San Antonio & its widespread use leads to "fence cutting" and range wars
  • 1877 Railroad service finally reaches San Antonio. San Antonio's first street car, pulled by mules, goes into operation
  • 1879 Telephone service introduced in San Antonio by Western Union
  • 1883 Electricity extended to entire city center. State of Texas purchases abandoned Alamo and gives it to City of San Antonio
  • 1899 First automobiles arrive in Texas
1900 - 1950

The Department acquires automobiles, motorcycles, radios and other technology, establishes a Training Academy, and becomes a professional, modern police organization.

First female member of SAPD

1900: Elizabeth Dunn (Hardy) is hired as the first female member of the San Antonio Police Department. Her duties are to monitor female prisoners.

The rural, frontier crimes and dangers of the 19th c (Indian/bandit raids, cattle rustling, gunslingers, and so on) were replaced by more urban crime and problems: bank robbers who used fast getaway cars, organized crime and corruption, alcohol (Prohibition) and narcotics, traffic accidents, and labor unrest - a product of industrialization. Although there was a continuation of frontier attitudes towards law and order as late as the 1930s (the WPA Guide to Texas quoted a Texas jurist as saying, "In Texas the 1st question to be decided by a jury in any homicide case is: Should the deceased have departed?"), technology served to facilitate the dissemination of more accepted (nationally) attitudes. In 1900, San Antonio residents were barely linked by telephone to someone a few blocks away; by 1950 San Antonio had a television station broadcasting national news every evening. The Police Department that entered the 20th century on horseback found itself 50 years later with an aerial surveillance unit, radio-equipped patrol cars and an urban expressway system.

SAPD 1901

SAPD in 1901

Market 1903

Gray-uniformed SAPD officers c. 1900, outside the Market

SAPD Mounted Patrol in 1903

Mounted Patrol 1903

Traffic Police on motorcycle

Traffic Police on motorcycle, c. 1934.

1950 - 1980

SAPD enters the era of Civil Service. City population expands and the Department grows in manpower and modern technology.

SAPD Lab Car c.1960

Above: SAPD Laboratory Car and Equipment, c. 1960

For SAPD, the post-war period brought both stability and change. Mayors had previously controlled the appointment of the Chief of Police/Chief Marshal, with a long list of Chiefs going in and out of office according to the popularity (or whim) of the mayor, who was himself subject to election every 2 years.

SAPD HQ 1962

New SAPD Headquarters on Nueva Street - Original 1962 one-storey building.

With the shift to a Council-Manager form of city government, the position of Chief of Police entered a new period of stability: the longest-serving Chief in SAPD history, Chief Bichsel (19 years) was appointed in 1953; only 5 other men served as chief throughout the rest of the 20th century. The 1950s was also a period of expansion in SAPD, not only of manpower, but also of facilities, with the passage of a bond for a new Headquarters building, an expansion of the crime laboratory, more (and more modern) equipment for officers and support staff, and an increase in professionalism in all areas of the Department.
Chief Bichsel's appointment as chief in 1953 and the 1957 Leonard Report (A Survey of the Police Department) are the most significant turning points for SAPD.

1980 - 2000

SAPD in the 21st Century: SAPD enters an era of Community Partnerships made possible through decentralization of services and accountability at all levels.

For more history, you may wish to visit the following sites

Easily available printed works include:

  • Lewis F. Fisher. San Antonio: Outpost of Empires. (Maverick Pub. Co., 1997)
    Mary Ann Noonan Guerra. The Alamo. (Alamo Press, 1996)
  • Mary Ann Noonan Guerra. The Missions of San Antonio. (Alamo Press, 1982).

More detailed information on this period of San Antonio history is included in:

  • Felix D. Alamaraz, Jr. The San Antonio Missions and Their System of Land Tenure. (U TX Press, 1989)
  • Donald Chipman. Spanish Texas 1519-1821. (U TX Press, 1992)
  • Gilbert R. Cruz. Let There Be Towns. (TX A&M, 1988)
  • Gerald E. Poyo (ed). Tejano Journey 1770-1850. (U TX Press, 1996)
  • Andres Tejerina. Tejanos and Texas Under the Mexican Flag: (1821-1836). (TX A&M Press, 1996)
  • The Bexar Archives at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.