The City of Porterville was incorporated as a city in 1902 and John Howell was hired as the first City Marshall. John Willis served under him as constable and Billy Maston and Lewis Zigler were deputy constables. Marshall Howell resigned after a short time and Ed Isham became City Marshall and served many years in various capacities. This was the first law enforcement in Porterville other than the county constables who served under the county sheriff and in 1949 became known as deputy sheriffs. The title of constable is rather confusing since there were City Constables, County Constables, and later, constables who served the courts. The system of constables was changed in 1974 when, during the tenure of Constable Vince Arcure, the Porterville Justice Court was changed to a Municipal Court and Constable Arcure became Marshall Arcure.
Porterville also hired people to serve as "night watchmen." This was evidently a step above being a deputy constable since Billy Maston was deputy constable until the Jim McKinney shooting, and he was then elevated to night watchman.
The Porterville Police Department was formed in 1927 when Porterville adopted a charter form of government with Ray Williams as the first Chief of Police. Williams replaced Austin Reynolds who was the last City Marshall. Billy Maston became Chief in 1929 and was succeeded by Lee Martin who was hired as Chief in 1933. Lee Martin was a County Constable in Ducor at the time he was hired by the police department.
George Overcash started with the police department in 1933 and lived in Porterville for many years. In 1933 the police department had a 1930 Ford touring car and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that they acquired in 1924. Paul Jones was the traffic officer and he also served as assistant chief. Paul Jones was instrumental in the department purchasing an Indian four-cylinder motorcycle. The department later bought a 1933 Plymouth 2-door, but when Overcash resigned from the police department in 1944, the department still had just one car and one motorcycle. In 1933, Overcash was receiving $100 per month as a police officer, and the Chief received $120.
Overcash had been working part-time for the police department before he was hired full-time. While working part-time, he was offered the additional job of licensing all of the dogs in town; Overcash was to receive a portion of each license fee. The first year he collected the license fees, he made more money than the City Manager and it was decided it would be cheaper to hire him full-time on salary.
In 1939 Overcash took over as traffic officer under Chief Lee Martin. Overcash said he had several opportunities to be chief, but since it only paid $20 more it hardly seemed worth the headache. When Overcash quit in 1944, his salary had only gone up to $190 per month.
In 1935 the officers in the police department bought their first two-way radio. Nelson Witte in Tulare built the radio and they paid $200 for it. The officers put on an Annual Policeman's Ball to raise money for their uniforms, badges, and other equipment. This was how they raised the money to purchase the radio. The base for the radio was in the fire department. Since a dispatcher was not on duty at all times, it was still necessary to find a way to communicate with the officers at night if no one was available at the base station. The communication system was simple but effective: a red light was placed in each end of the alley on either side of Main Street and one on Main Street. Another red light was placed on top of the water tower, which stood where Santa Fe Plaza is now. The switch for the red light was in the telephone office. So when someone called for an officer, the telephone operator would pull the switch and the officers would see the light and call in from a number of strategically placed telephones. The telephone company provided a night telephone operator, which for many years was Eva Tillis, who lived on East Putnam. At 2200 hours an officer would go out and pick up Mrs. Tillis, take her to the telephone office, and then take her home at 0600 hours.
When the police department was organized in 1927, it was located at Putnam and Division, in what was later to be the Porterville Recorder office (currently, the location houses a restaurant). The door of the police department faced Division Street, which most people think of as an alley. In 1930, the police department moved to a location between Main and Second Street facing Putnam in what is now a parking lot (behind the Cellar). The building was last used as the Sunbeam Bakery. The police department and City Hall faced what is now the rear of the Porter Theater. At that same location, but across the street on the south side of Putnam at the rear of where the Porter Theater is now, sat the one room jail.
In 1939 the police department and City Hall moved to a location at Cleveland and Main. The police judge, who for many years was Judge Ridgeway, also had his office in with City Hall and the police department. For many years, the Justice of the Peace was Awbrey Lumley and he had his office in with his insurance business at the corner of Division and Mill. In 1963 an addition was built on the north side of City Hall and a new police department was added. In 1989 a new police department was built at Harrison and D Street and the old police department became the city manager's office, as it is today.
The only written records that still exist of the early police department or city marshall are the arrest record books. The earliest arrest record is November 1918. Although the contents of the book cannot be made public, they are of interest and show charges of everything from murder to major felony crimes such as drunkenness, insanity, stealing chickens, making shine, and the ever-popular disposition of "floated out of town."
Much has changed since 1902, but people remain be the same. There are always a few people who cannot seem to live peacefully among their fellow man and so there is a need for someone to protect the majority from the few.
Paul Marshall, the author of the above article, was with the Porterville Police Department for twenty-eight years and is a native of Porterville. The author wishes to thank Jeff Edwards, George Overcash, and others for the information contained in this article.
POLICE CHIEFS - Under Charter of 1926