Peace Officers Peace officers in the Old West weren’t held to the high standards they are today.

peace officer true west magazine
Arizona Ranger Harry Wheeler by Bill Ahrendt.

As a rule peace officers in the Old West weren’t held to the high standards they are today. It wasn’t unusual to rough up a suspect in order to get a confession; a lawyer didn’t have to be present; and a suspect didn’t have to have his rights read to him. In short public servants, including lawmen, weren’t subject to the public scrutiny they are today.

Other than keeping the peace, one of the sheriff’s main duties was that of tax collector. Collecting taxes was a nice supplement to a sheriff’s meager salary as he got to keep a percentage. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan might pocket $40,000 a year, most of it from taxes collected from the mines, brothels and saloons. It was customary for the sheriff to buy a round for the local imbibers on tax collection day. They all knew the time of day the sheriff was coming to collect.

When future Arizona Senator Carl Hayden was Sheriff of Maricopa County he quickly realized it wasn’t cost effective to collect taxes at the usual time on Saturday afternoon as large numbers of freeloaders always gathered on saloon row in Phoenix, Washington Street. He began making his rounds early in the morning when the saloons were just opening and the boys were still sleeping off the previous night’s imbibing.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at

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