During the early days, law enforcement was done by town council members who doubled as constables in the wards where they were elected. The council members were called wardens. The sheriff of Clarke County had offices in the courthouse in Watkinsville. The area of Clarke County covered all of what is now Clarke and Oconee Counties. There were no jail facilities in Athens. In 1847 the first assistant warden was hired to aid in keeping order in the village. This system was followed during the Civil War and beyond with the exception of a brief period immediately following the war when federal troops imposed martial law. The wardens were responsible for keeping the peace and also doing other tasks such as ringing the town bell to signify meetings and deterring marble playing on the sidewalks on Sunday. The year 1871 brought substantial changes in the law enforcement community in Athens. The area that had previously been known as Clarke County was divided and the new county of Oconee was created. Athens became the county seat of Clarke County. A new courthouse building and jail were constructed on a parcel of land bounded by the Finley Street, Meigs Street, Pope Street, Hill Street and Prince Avenue. Today the only building that remains from this complex is the old jail which is located just to the right and behind Captain D's on Prince Avenue. The county sheriff worked out of this location until the current main courthouse was constructed in 1913. The community of Athens continued to grow due to the steady growth of the university, the growth of cotton related textile industries, and the influence of the first railroad, which had reached Athens in 1841. The growth of the town necessitated the reorganization of the city government with a new city charter in 1873.
The charter provided for the collection of city taxes, a police force, and a recorder court to hear cases of local ordinance violations. The first chief of police of the new Police Force was Middleton P. Davis. Beginning with just a few members, the Athens Police Department grew with the town, and by 1920 had a force numbering approximately 23 officers. Foot patrol was the main method of operation. The force was headquartered in the old town hall and was eventually moved into the basement of the new city hall building, which was constructed in 1904. The turn of the century brought the construction of a city jail facility at the west end of Boulevard
By 1893 the population of the City of Athens had reached 10,000 people. A building boom was in progress in the downtown area. Many of the old buildings now seen in the downtown area were constructed during the period of 1880 to 1930. Electric lights, electric streetcars, and paved streets made their appearance during this period. Law enforcement in the unincorporated area of Clarke County was still the responsibility of the sheriff whose headquarters was located at the courthouse. The county jail occupied the top floor of the new courthouse.
During the period of 1930 to 1950 many developments in technology, forensic science, and transportation would impact the delivery of law enforcement services. The City of Athens Police acquired its first police car in the early 1930s. The police department began to use new methods in forensic science in the area of fingerprints, examination of evidence, and evidence collection. Mr. E. E. Hardy and Mr. Walt McKinnon are regarded as the first criminal investigators of the modern era in Athens. In the late 1940s they began the practice of fingerprinting all arrested subjects, collecting physical evidence from crime scenes, and forwarding evidence to scientific labs such as the FBI lab in Washington. The development of transportation on a national level impacted Athens as additional rail lines, regular passenger bus service, and finally air transportation would create new concerns for local law enforcement. An event in 1929 would introduce a new challenge to local law enforcement that remains an important operational concern today.
The phenomenon of college football grew by major proportions during the first half of the century. Athens joined the list of cities who would enjoy the effects of this growth in the fall of 1929 when Sanford Stadium was dedicated, bringing with it the traffic problems, crowd control and crime control issues that we still confront on many fall Saturdays. The 1930s also brought the first Southern Bell Telephone Service to Athens and the first successful commercial radio station (WGAU).
By 1951 the City of Athens Police Department could boast of three radio-equipped cars, four motorcycles, and thirty-four sworn officers. The department was divided into three branches: uniform, detectives, and traffic. Perhaps no period of American History brought more changes to law enforcement than the 1960s and 1970s. The continuing explosion in technology, changes in the legal environment, and social trends and changes forced many new directions upon the law enforcement agencies of the country. A steady increase in population, urban development and incidence of crime added other pressures to the law enforcement scene in Clarke County. Prior to 1960, much of the unincorporated area of Clarke County was rural and agricultural. The 1960s brought rapid changes to this environment with the advent of new industries, retail and commercial development, and the construction of planned residential subdivisions. By the early 1970s, the rising crime rate was creating a growing concern among the county government and the citizenry of the unincorporated area of the county. Many believed that the formation of a county police force similar to others that had been organized in urban areas in the state held promise for bringing the needed improvements in law enforcement services. These concerns and the efforts of the county leadership resulted in the formation of the Clarke County Police Department in 1974. The department began its operation in a small space in the basement of the county courthouse and later occupied the old health department building at the Hill Street/Pope Street government property. Mr. Kent Lawrence was appointed as the first Chief of the Clarke County Police Department. He would provide leadership to the department until 1976 and would later become the Judge of the State Court in Clarke County. It was the goal of the County Police to bring professional law enforcement and modern crime fighting techniques to the unincorporated area of Clarke County.
The 1960s and 1970s also saw expansion and changes at the Athens Police Department. The space that had been occupied by the department in the basement of the City Hall for many years was no longer adequate to house operations. A search for a new home for the department led to a four-story building that sits on the same block as City Hall and was constructed in the 1920s by Joseph Costa and his family. Mr. Costa had operated a successful ice cream business in Athens for many years. The building was remodeled and the department moved to its new headquarters in the late 1960s. This building would serve as city police headquarters until unification.
The passage of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Act, the mandates of Supreme Court decisions, and the growth in communications and record-keeping functions forced both the city and county police departments to organize administrative divisions to augment their operational functions. The role of record keeping, communications, training and other support functions increased greatly in importance during this era. The 1960s marked another milestone as the first African American police officers were hired by the City of Athens. Among some of the first African American officers that were hired were Clifton Freeman, James Billups, and Archibald Killian.