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What happens when law enforcement stands down?

History has shown that American citizens will eventually stand up to protect themselves

Law Dogs Bob Paul 1.jpg

Sheriff Bob Paul became a force for good against evil.

Photo courtesy of John Bossenecker and True West Magazine

Historically, whenever the criminal justice system is ineffectual by circumstance or design during violent times, members of the public have taken action. However, when a member or members out of a perceived necessity take it upon themselves to administrate justice to violent criminals, it has often been imperfect and violent.

Here are a few historical examples of what happens in a vacuum created where effective law enforcement is absent.

Californian Gold Rush

When gold was found in California, the territory was suddenly inundated by thousands of settlers. Many, who were hoping for a better life, found a grave instead at the hands of criminals, who would kill a man for his gold, a mule or even for a few bucks.

Due to the absence of agents for law and order, settlers took the law into their own hands. From 1849 to 1853, Californians hung at least 200 extra-judicially as punishment for dastardly deeds. Many of them committed the crimes they were hung for, but some were probably innocent and caught up in the passions of mob action.

This rough justice ended only begrudgingly after indomitable and principled lawmen like the immortal sheriffs Bob Paul and John Coffee Hayes filled the vacuum and pinned on badges to become forces for good against evil.

[RELATED: Police History: The story of John Coffee Hays, Texas Ranger]

“The Cowboys” of Arizona Territory

In the 1880s, a loosely connected criminal gang called “The Cowboys” formed. They were rustlers, robbers, killers and bully-boys. They committed crimes in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, as well as across the border in Old Mexico. When lawmen captured one of their number for crimes, other “Cowboys” would provide an alibi in the form of perjured testimony, making conviction for their crimes impossible. The “Cowboys” seemed out of reach of the law.

The most famous clash between the “Cowboys” and law enforcement occurred in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, when four “Cowboys met their maker in a stand-up gunfight facing Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp, along with their friend “Doc” Holliday.

Later in retaliation, other “Cowboys” ambushed and gravely wounded Tombstone lawman, Virgil Earp. Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp brought a culprit before the court for adjudication. However, the “Cowboys” once again gave perjured testimony and the bushwhacker walked.

Judge Stillwell, who heard the case, told Wyatt after the failed legal prosecution: “Wyatt, you’ll never clean up this crowd this way; next time you’d better leave your prisoners in the brush where alibis don’t count.”

Wyatt took these words to heart after witnessing his brother, Morgan, shot in the back from ambush while he was playing a friendly game of pool. After sending his brother’s body to California to be buried, Wyatt set off on a “Vendetta Ride” and personally killed at least three of the “Cowboys” responsible for his brother’s death. And as Judge Stillwell advised, he just left them lying “in the brush.”

Earp fled the state before his work was done because a warrant for murder was issued for his arrest in the extra-judicial killings.

[RELATED: Police history: The Earps of Tombstone]


After Wyatt Earp left the state, the lawless “Cochise County Cowboys” continued their crimes and depredations. On December 8, 1883, six “Cowboys” rode into Bisbee and robbed a general store, which also served as a bank. During the raid, the cowboys unnecessarily shot dead four people, who included one lawman, known for refusing to carry a gun, and a woman expecting a baby, named Annie Roberts.

“Cowboy” John Heath was arrested for planning the raid. As he was being held in the jail in Tombstone, a group of citizens from Bisbee, certain the “Cowboy” would not be punished, rode into Tombstone, calmly removed Heath from the jail and hung him from the crossbar of a telegraph pole on “Toughnut Street.”

When the five other “Cowboys” involved in the “Bisbee Massacre” with Heath were tried and convicted, Sheriff Bob Paul, the previously mentioned former California lawman, was summoned to help provide with security and conduct the legal hanging of the “Cowboys.” The presence of Paul, a lawman of great repute, gave the citizens of Bisbee and Tombstone faith that finally, this time, justice would be served. Their trust was rewarded when Paul, at the order of a court, built gallows and legally dropped the five “Cowboys” into eternity simultaneously.

The James-Younger Gang

Both the James-Younger Gang and the Dalton Gang seemed untouchable by the law in their time. Their crimes were many and their victims were buried in cemeteries far and wide. The James-Younger Gang’s motives were glorified as heroes by the propaganda of the biased media of their day.

[RELATED: Police history: How citizens helped police take down a gang]

The James-Younger Gang’s reign of terror was concluded courtesy of citizens who rose against the gang and shot them out of Northfield Minnesota during a bank robbery there. This successful defense of the town proved costly. Two unarmed citizens and two gang members lay dead after the robbery. Minnesota citizens formed poses across the state to help lawmen chase the gang. They were eventually trapped and captured after a deadly skirmish in a remote place called Hanska’s Slough.

[RELATED: How a Minnesota community stopped the James-Younger Gang]

The Dalton Gang

The Dalton Gang tried to outdo the James-Younger gang by robbing two banks in their hometown of Coffeyville. They were shot to pieces by the citizens who stood by Marshal Connelly. They even kept up the fight after they saw Connelly shot dead in the intense skirmish. After 12 minutes of blazing gunfire, four of the gang lay dead, while one badly wounded Dalton would survive to spend years in prison after being shot many times by the citizens of Coffeyville.

[RELATED: The story of the Dalton Gang raid in Coffeyville]

The Los Angeles Riots

Fast-forward to April 1992. During riots in Los Angeles, police were powerless to protect many Korean businesses, which were targeted and destroyed by rioters. However, quite famously, two Korean business owners stood up in front of their business. When their presence and verbal warnings failed, they drove off would-be looters by firing in their direction, saving their life’s work from wanton destruction.


History has repeatedly shown that in the absence of effective law enforcement, acts of relentless criminality will eventually inspire American citizens to take matters into their own hands. If leaders continue to stand down police while standing by criminals, then these leaders better stand back, for history has shown that American citizens will eventually stand up to protect themselves.

Marcou D. Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History.
Bossenecker J. When Law was in the Holster: The Frontier Life of Bob Paul.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.