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Living Law Enforcement History

These organizations have been supporting local law enforcement and catching crooks since before the West was won.

November 01, 2002  |  by William Bell

The Arizona Rangers

One function of the Arizona Rangers is search and rescue. They are often called out to find the trails of lost hikers or hunters. Here, Sgt. John Brocavich of the Sierra Vista Company “cuts sign,” or looks for a trail, with his horse Outlaw.

At the turn of the 20th Century, influential citizens and politicians wanted to clean up the Arizona Territory in preparation for eventual statehood. The territory had become a haven for the lawless as surrounding states made things hot for horse thieves, stagecoach robbers, rustlers, and hold-up men. The vast empty Arizona Territory encompassing 113.909 square miles of desert, mountains, and valleys was made to order for those trying to avoid the law and carry on their nefarious activities.

An Act of the Arizona Territorial Legislature passed in March 1901, established the Arizona Rangers, a small group of law enforcement officers composed of a captain, a sergeant, and 12 privates, whose sole mission was to rid the territory of outlaws. This was an elite group of lawmen originally led by former Rough Rider and deputy sheriff Captain Burt Mossman. His men were all expert cowboys, many Spanish-American War Veterans or ex-peace officers. They adopted the most effective weapons available at the time, Winchester Model 1895 rifles in .30-40 Krag and Colt Single-Action Army revolvers in .45 Colt. They went right to work chasing "South of the Border Bandits."

In late 1902, another ex-soldier, Tom Rynning, took over as Captain. During his tenure, the Ranger force was expanded to 26 men and in 1903, the organization adopted the famous 5-point star that became its trademark. Rynning insisted on marksmanship practice and preferred single recruits fluent in Spanish. His force cleaned up the border town of Douglas and helped keep the peace during mine disputes and strikes. The rangers under Rynning ran to ground robber Burt Alvord who stole $33,000 in gold bullion, $16,000 of which was never recovered.

In the background can be seen the rugged mountains near the Arizona-Mexico border. The original Territorial Rangers patrolled the border to stop raiding “banditos” before the days of the Border Patrol.

The Arizona Rangers' last captain, Harry Wheeler, was a former cavalryman and a deadly gunfighter who took over in 1907. Wheeler composed a list of general orders for the rangers and established 15 ranger posts, scattering his 23 men throughout the territory. Wheeler concentrated most of his rangers on the Mexican border and kept the peace in border towns such as Naco and Nogales.

During this time, a rift developed between the rangers and local sheriffs and marshals, who believed the rangers' territorial authority deprived local law enforcement of reward money posted for the capture of outlaws. An outfit that had remained un-political during its existence finally succumbed to political maneuvering by the legislature and the Territorial Arizona Rangers were disbanded by the governor in February 1909.

In 1957, four of the original Territorial Rangers resurrected the Arizona Rangers, which was registered as a non-profit group with state peace officer status. Later, in the early 1970s, the rangers gave up their authority and incorporated as a charitable organization. Like the Colorado Mounted Rangers, the Arizona Rangers have no specific individual arrest authority, but assist law enforcement agencies within the state. They provide crowd and traffic control at such events as the Tubac Arts Festival, Sonoita horse races, Professional Cow Punchers Rodeo, Butterfield Stage Days, fairs, and festivals, and assist in DUI task force operations.

As a charitable organization, the Arizona Rangers also help needy and troubled youths within their communities through fund raising and benefits, as well as by providing scholarships to deserving students.

Another mission of the Arizona Rangers is to preserve their history and the traditions of the Old West by maintaining the Arizona Rangers Museum, located in Nogales. The museum is housed in the old courthouse, which dates from 1904, and contains exhibits of old and new ranger memorabilia. A unique program carried on by the Arizona Rangers is the marking of the graves of original Territorial Rangers. Of 107 old time rangers, 23 gravesites have been found and marked with a small plaque, which gives the date of service and rank.

Master Sgt. Anne May is in charge of training for the Sierra Vista Company. New Rangers must attend a 40-hour academy and qualify with firearms, and learn first aid and CPR.

To enlist in the Arizona Rangers, a candidate must be at least 21 years of age and have no criminal history. The recruit must actually reside in Arizona at least six months of the calendar year, complete the screening process and probationary period, subscribe to the aims and goals of the Arizona Rangers, and be accepted by a majority vote of eligible rangers in the company being joined. Trainees must attend the "Ranger Basic Forty," a weeklong session staffed by instructors from the Arizona POST program. During the "Forty," new rangers receive training in firearms handling and qualification, first aid, and CPR, among other skills. New advanced courses are being offered starting this year, with two levels of law enforcement assist certifications.

Rangers expect no compensation for their service and provide their own uniforms, equipment, weapons, and transportation to duty locations within the state. Rangers wear the historical five-point star and have both summer and winter dress uniforms, with black trousers and white or dark blue shirts, plus light blue (chambray) shirts and blue jeans for rough duty assignments and training.

The modern Arizona Rangers organization was revived in 1957 by four of the original Territorial Rangers. They are chartered as a non-profit, charitable group assisting local law enforcement and helping troubled youths.

Many members also dress in traditional cowboy-style clothing for ceremonial purposes and carry Old West six-shooters in fancy tooled leather rigs. While some companies allow single-action type revolvers for duty use, most rangers carry modern Glock and 1911 Government Model pistols or Smith & Wesson revolvers.

There are 13 companies of Arizona Rangers in locations including Sierra Vista, Tucson, Phoenix, Benson, Willcox, and Show Low. Many rangers have their own horses and participate in search-and-rescue missions, plus there is a bicycle patrol. Often, rangers are commissioned by local law enforcement agencies and have assisted with perimeter security on raids of clandestine "meth" labs or on SWAT callouts. Rangers still face the same kinds of dangers today as their Wild West counterparts did when Arizona was still a territory. This was demonstrated a decade ago by the line-of-duty death of Ranger Sgt. John W. Thomas, Jr., who was shot by an armed robber following an ATM holdup.

2001 marked the Centennial Year of the Arizona Rangers as proclaimed by Gov. Jane Hull. The governor urged all Arizona citizens to express their gratitude to the men and women of the ranger companies who have given countless hours of volunteer service to their communities each year and provided financial resources for numerous youth activities, while serving as models of patriotism for the state and the nation.

William Bell is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement and is currently a port director for U.S. Customs in Indianapolis.

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