Law Enforcement in Frontier Los Angeles

Law Enforcement in Frontier Los Angeles

Law Enforcement in an era when Judges slung shotguns over their shoulders and the jurors would have bowie knives hanging from their belts.

New Spain became Mexico in 1822. In both the Spanish and the Mexican periods the responsibility for law enforcement in Alta California and the Pueblo de Los Angeles was given to the alcalde, a combination mayor and judge who also sat on the ayuntamiento, or town council. The alcalde was responsible only to the Governors comisionado, military representative. The authority for these positions was contained in the Regalmento de 1779.

Citizens were governed by both church and civil law. Penalties for violations included; jail time, fines in cash and kind, head shaving, stocks, beating, whipping and exile. Executions required a legal ruling from the high court in Mexico.

On January 8, 1847 American Colonel Fremont and Mexican General Pico signed the Cahuenga Treaty that ended the Alta California-American War. This began the military administration of law enforcement in Los Angeles. In the vast wilderness of the California frontier the law was as you made it.

Weak Government in Los Angeles Leaves Citizens Unprotected

In 1848 the Sutter’s Mill gold find happened. The first on the scene made fantastic gold strikes, finding eons of placer gold to be scooped up. Fortunes were made supplying food to the gold seekers.

Citizens with anything lived in fear of those who had nothing: Unemployed war veterans; luckless, desperate, flat broke prospectors; de-territorialized Californios and an endless stream of drifters were working their way to the little pueblo adding to the crime and debauchery that were so prevalent.

With no law enforcement; grudges and feuds built. For many Los Angeles was a city of days filled with loathing and nights filled with fear.

The New American Government in California

Military rule ended in California in 1849. A legal system was established that included a State Supreme Court, District Courts, County Courts and justices of the peace. A temporary ruling body for each county was established called Court of Sessions.

The Mexican Juez del Campo was retained. This court settled livestock ownership on the open plains and presided over rodeos.

On February 18, 1850 the County of Los Angeles was established as one of the 27 original California counties. On April 1, 1850 the people of Los Angeles asserted their newly won right of self-government and elected a three-man Court of Sessions as their first governing body and a Sheriff. A total of 377 votes were cast in this election.

Law Enforcement Officers in Early Los Angeles and California

The Law Enforcement jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff encompassed from what is now Santa Barbara County to San Diego County, from the ocean to the Sierra Mountains.

The sheriff was elected for one year terms. The sheriff could appoint an under sheriff and as many deputies as the county budget would allow.

Unincorporated county areas could elect a Constable to enforce the law. The Constable was responsible to the local jurisdiction that elected him and reported to the County Sheriff.

Incorporated towns and cities could either elect or appoint a Town Marshal who was responsible for law enforcement within a well defined jurisdiction. The Town Marshal could have as many Deputy Marshals as the town budget would allow.

The Town Marshal was separate from the Federal Marshals who enforced the sovereign power of American law with broad discretionary powers, including blank execution warrants.

The California State Militia was a mounted patrol that covered much of the undefined, open jurisdiction area along the roads that connected the cities, towns and villages of rugged frontier California.

As much of California was open federal land, the U. S. Army would patrol the vast and untamed wilderness of California and lend assistance with mounted troops when needed.

When needed a posse could be formed containing any or all of these law enforcement officers, private citizens and federal troops. Effectiveness of posses was limited due to organization. Often by the time the posse assembled and rode out of town the suspects were long gone.

Law Enforcement Badges of Office

With an area to patrol larger than many states badges were the identifiers for law enforcement officers. Most of the time badges were worn inside the lapel out of sight.

Small groups of lawmen would ride hundreds of miles on horseback to bring a suspect to justice only to have vigilantes conduct a lynching before any semblance of a trial could be conducted.

Vigilantes as well as outlaws were liable to just shoot a badge on site.

The Los Angeles Rangers a Peoples’ Militia

On June 4, 1851 early California physician and Mexican War veteran Dr. Alexander W. Hope was appointed Los Angeles “Chief of Police” by Mayor Benjamin Wilson to organize and lead a 100-man all-volunteer force: The Los Angeles Rangers

The Rangers enlisted 100 men at its first meeting at Billy Getman’s saloon. 25 of this group were selected to be full time. On August 1, 1853 a barracks was established for the highly mobile and rapidly deployable force commanded by Dr. Hope to track down dangerous outlaws.

The rangers wore badges of woven white ribbon bearing the words: “City Police organized by the Common Council of Los Angeles July 12, 1851” and “Policia Organizado por el Cosnejo Comun de Los Angeles”. The all volunteer force supplied their own firearms, horses and tack.

Rangers spent many long hours in the saddle hunting down outlaws over every type of terrain, in all kinds of weather. This people’s militia became extremely effective at tracking down criminals, and, became a source for many paid, sworn law enforcement officers.

In November 1854 the Southern Californian newspaper wrote: “Public good and public protection is all they have brought.”


  1. Six Gun Sound, Sven Crongeyer 2006 Linden Publishing, Fresno