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Lessons For Law-Enforcement From Cowboys

In the many articles I've written for Arresting Solutions, a common criterion for the various topics has been the educational component. Each article had to impart relevant knowledge, whether historical, practical, or conceptual to the reader. So too is the case with this one, albeit from a very different framework.

My childhood began in the 1950s, the heyday of the television westerns. Yancy Derringer, Jim Bowie, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Roy Rogers, Cheyenne, Maverick, The Lawman, The Rebel, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Cimarron Strip, Tales of Wells Fargo, Death Valley Days, The Deputy, Twenty-Six Men, Tombstone Territory, Zane Grey Theater, The Virginian, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Gene Autry, Sugarfoot, Rin Tin Tin, Gunsmoke, and many others graced TV. screens nationwide. If pressured, I could probably sing the theme songs to most of these. They were all exciting, pitting good against bad, with good always winning in the end. There were two series, however, which I believe stood out from the others in the ethical message they delivered, which is as relevant for police today as it was for these cowboys and lawmen of the old west.

The first of these shows was The Lone Ranger. Coupled with his partner Tonto, The Lone Ranger (a former Texas Ranger who was the sole survivor of a massacre) sought out outlaws, and following some drama and action/adventure, rode off into the sunset to another challenge against the bad guys. Unlike many of the other westerns, there was a minimum of violence shown, and a high regard for the safety of the public. The issue of prime importance was that throughout the episode, The Lone Ranger spoke of ethical issues regarding the responsibility of himself as a law-enforcer, as well as the public's response to criminal behavior and responsibility and the betterment of the community. He resorted to aggressive means for an arrest only as a last resort, and this was a message clearly sent to those around. This ethical message for law-enforcement was not preached or lectured, but delivered as part of conversations between The Lone Ranger and Tonto, The Lone Ranger and a Sheriff and/or Marshal, and The Lone Ranger and those he was attempting to arrest. There was always an ethical, non-violent first and second attempt made prior to any use of a firearm, always the last resort.


Another standout western with lessons in ethics for law-enforcement was Have Gun Will Travel. Much maligned and twisted as to the meaning and purpose of this show, the hero, Paladin, was indeed, as the theme song tells us, "a knight without armor". (Paladin has been referred to as the paradigm for mercenaries and bounty hunters, something absolutely untrue to anyone who watched and understood the show.)  Here was a man who was superbly educated,  highly cultured and sophisticated, yet lightning fast with a gun, and expert in unarmed fighting. Rather than hire out as a bounty hunter or mercenary (a favored expression was, "I'm not an executioner), Paladin only accepted jobs where the person he tried to arrest was legally deserving to be arrested by way of a wanted poster or an illegal, unsavory act, or went in search of those who were missing from family. With all of his fighting skills, armed and unarmed, violence seemed to be abhorred. There was always talking as the first step. If unsuccessful, unarmed methods of arrest were attempted. If threatened with a weapon, he responded in kind, e.g., if someone threw a chair at him, he might throw something back in the middle of a fight; if someone struck him with a stick, he might break a branch off a tree and defend himself with it, rather than draw his gun. Even if the adversary threatened to draw his gun on Paladin, trying to talk him out of it would always be the first move made by him. His gun was fired only as a last resort. Paladin, too, always spoke of philosophies of life, and ethics of behavior, to both friends and non-friends.

While Paladin and The Lone Ranger did kill in self-defense, more often than not the shot was intended to (and almost always did) wound or disable the gunslinger rather than kill him. Both displayed contempt for corrupt law-enforcement officials and spoke of it in ethical and moral terms.

What many would dismiss as outdated entertainment contains many valuable lessons to be learned by law-enforcement as to the priorities and morality in securing an arrest. Law-enforcement today could well glean much from the cowboys of olden days.

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