The term peace officer refers to those people whose main job it is to preserve and maintain the public peace, and it encompasses a broad range of law enforcement officers including police officers, constables, mayors, sheriffs, wardens, marshals, corrections officers, and in earlier eras even judges (hence the term justice of the peace). While crime prevention is the focus of the peace officer, many conceptualize police officers and sheriffs, at least, as crime fighters as opposed to crime preventers. This impression is even more pronounced when the word western is added to the mix. The western peace officer brings forth images of dusty main streets, saloons, and gunslingers. These images have been shaped by folklore and the media, with a blurred distinction between the bandits and the peace officers themselves.
The connotation of the violent, rough-and-tumble American frontier is actually far from reality. There was violence and criminal activity in the frontier in the late 1800s, but much less so than compared to the urban areas of the time. In fact, the Western frontier was even safer than most of American cities today in terms of absolute numbers of homicides as well as characteristics of the crimes themselves, with modern crime often involving innocent victims, whereas frontier crime usually involved willing participants. This idea of a relatively safe western frontier is in contrast to most people’s notions of the ”Wild West” as being a place where shoot-outs were a common occurrence. It is true that many citizens had firearms to protect person and property; however, the overall notion of a gunslinging society with fast-drawing peace officers bringing justice to a crime-ridden American frontier is exaggerated. Stereotypes and folklore of the western peace officer (like stereotypes of other groups) do not capture the complexity and nuance of the people or their jobs.
- Town officers. Town officers often spent their time in common civic actions such as arresting drunks and looking for stray children and animals. They often secured their positions through friendships with mayors and judges. While the most glamorized of the western peace officers (for example, Wyatt and Virgil Earp) may have been periodically battling outlaws and dealing with vigilantism, many officers engaged in mundane policing activity and had reputations for being corrupt, lazy, and indifferent.
- County sheriffs. Compared to the town officers, county sheriffs enjoyed a great deal of police authority given their power over larger geographic areas that in some instances were larger than some states. Their responsibilities were thus diverse and included governmental duties (for example, collecting taxes, serving court orders), corrections (for example, running the county jail), and a wide range of other services (for example, inspecting livestock). They also had at their disposal deputies and local constables.
- Private police agencies. Private agencies provided detective services, centralized points of contact for other police organizations, and guard services. Specialized agencies like the railroad police had authority similar to that of their public counterparts, but focused their attention on preserving and securing safe delivery of their freight. Range inspectors similarly focused their law enforcement energies on minimizing cattle theft.
- The rangers (of Texas Ranger fame) were small paramilitary units that were designed to scout Indian tribes in the western-most regions of development of East Texas.
- Highway patrol officers. The introduction of the automobile and expansion of networked roadways created the need for state police forces whose job was to focus completely on the problems, challenges, and criminal activities associated with the growing highways.
- Native American police officers. Tribes developed their own agencies to enforce order and tribal rules. Once recognized by Congress and federal authorities in 1878, these existing Native American officers gradually developed law enforcement systems that affected tribal lands across the United States, with independent forces upholding the law and maintaining the peace on reservations. The lip side is the specialized agents used as scouts by the U.S. military, and later, as investigators by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to focus specifically on crime associated with tribal lands.
- S. marshals. In terms of federal law enforcement, some segments of the military acted as law enforcement agencies; however, the U.S. marshals engaged in the most typical of police activity. With a national judicial system in place starting in 1789 came the need for a federal law enforcement system. These officers were typically businessmen appointed by the president. These federal officers carried out a wide range of police duties across their federal territories in the West. As the territories became states, their roles shrank to those we are familiar with today.
- Other federal ofCustoms officers and post office inspectors were needed in certain locations in the frontier. Although their duties were limited, they served an important function in those communities. Additionally, illegal immigration across the Mexican border led to the development of the Border Patrol. Other federal agencies active in the frontier were the Secret Service, FBI, and national park rangers.
The western peace officer remains an intriguing, nostalgic character for most people, an image that is buttressed by movies and novels that purport to portray gunslingers in a bygone age. The aura of rugged mystique and individualism that surrounds the western peace officer is hard to ignore—or dispel. The reality, though, does not burst the bubble, but rather highlights the complexities of these men, their jobs, and the social context that shaped them and the agencies they worked for. The western peace officer had fundamentally many of the same duties as today’s law enforcement officers. They faced local, societal, and political challenges. Specialized agencies were developed and continued to evolve to accommodate unique societal circumstances. The peace officers of the frontier led the way for the protection of individual rights and freedom, a characteristic that is notoriously ”western.”
See also: Arrest Powers of the Police; Constables; History of American Policing; Private Policing; Role of the Police; Sheriffs; Texas Rangers; Tribal Police
- Anderson, Terry L., and P. J. Hill. n.d. An American experiment in anarcho-capitalism: The not so wild, Wild West. Journal of Libertarian Studies 3 (1): 9-29.
- Chaput, Don. 1994. Virgil Earp: Western peace officer. Encampment, WY: Affiliated Writers of America.
- Eckhardt, Charles, F. 1973. Debunking the Wild West fantasy. Guns and Ammo, 36-37.
- Hollon, W. Eugene. 1974. Frontier violence: Another look. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Prassel, Frank. 1972. The western peace officer: A legacy of law and order. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.