By Julie Simpson –
When disaster strikes, whether it’s a fire, flood or a search and rescue emergency, police and firefighters are the first people to come to our aid. But in many communities across Colorado, those first responders are backed up by another group of brave men and women: the all-volunteer Colorado Mounted Rangers.
The Rangers have a long and storied history beginning all the way back in 1859, before Colorado was officially a state. Then they guarded gold shipments coming from the Pikes Peak gold rush. With the establishment of the Colorado Territory in 1861, the Rangers became the state’s official law enforcement agency. Over the years, the Rangers lost their official status, disbanded, reformed and, today, are regaining their official status as the Colorado Rangers Law Enforcement Shared Reserve.
A LOOK BACK AT SERVICE
During their early years, Rangers protected the public and government officials, tracked down dangerous criminals and guarded mining profits. In the days of the Civil War, Rangers even contributed to the victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, where they kept Confederate forces from advancing toward Colorado gold mines. The early 1920s saw the Rangers enforcing Prohibition by busting smugglers and bootleggers and breaking up organized crime rings.
However, the Rangers became unpopular because of their reputation for violence against striking miners, like those in Cripple Creek in 1894 or at the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. They were done in 1923, when Gov. William M. Sweet signed an order cutting all funding, effectively disbanding the Rangers.
Though they existed only in memory for the better part of two decades, the Rangers were eventually reborn. A new administration under Gov. Teller Ammons felt that an organization with the long and colorful history of the Colorado Mounted Rangers should not be allowed to fade away. On February 21, 1941, the Rangers were reconstituted, this time as a single volunteer-based troop in Bailey, Colorado. As volunteer numbers grew and demand from local law enforcement increased, the CMR once again reorganized into multiple troops across the state in 1955.
Since then, the Rangers continued to grow and change in order to best meet the needs of the communities they serve. The Colorado Mounted Rangers is currently classified as a statutorily authorized, statewide law enforcement auxiliary or, in simpler terms, a group of volunteers who are legally recognized by the state to assist other law enforcement agencies.
The name “Colorado Mounted Rangers” is a bit deceiving however, considering the Rangers no longer use horses as their primary means of transportation. The name has been kept as a historic nod to the organization’s origins, though a mounted search and rescue unit still functions out of Troop E serving Douglas and Elbert counties.
TODAY’S VOLUNTEER RANGERS
The Rangers are made up of 120 highly trained volunteers in four currently active troops spread across the state. Though troops are locally based, the Rangers respond to emergencies statewide, which means all troops might respond to a particular situation even if it is hundreds of miles from their usual base of operations. In addition to the mounted search and rescue unit, the Rangers also have a specialized chaplain unit to provide spiritual support during traumatic events, as well as a K9 unit, which boasts the state of Colorado’s first ever pit bull breed police dog named Kara, donated to the CMR this past summer.
Though they can’t give traffic tickets or respond to domestic disputes, the Rangers perform numerous other services. These can include emergency response to natural disasters like floods and fires, terrorism recognition and response, security at large-scale events, VIP protection for occasions such as congressional delegations, prisoner transport, and even responding to bank robberies. In recent years, the Rangers have been an integral part of emergency response to such disasters as the Big Thompson flood, the Black Ridge fire, the Hayman fire and the 2013 Front Range flood. The services they provide are particularly important in small rural communities where the typical police department only employs a chief and a few part-time deputies.
“Small towns don’t have the budget or the personnel for large disasters, so we’re their favorite people during emergencies because we come in and provide a bunch of man-hours without costing them any money,” explains the Rangers’ Lt. Col. Bill Tolbert.
Tolbert, the state executive officer of the Colorado Mounted Rangers, was involved in disaster response with Homeland Security until he transitioned to a position with the Rangers. He also served as state chair over a committee of 40-plus agencies for disaster relief and even received a national award from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for his work in disaster relief. He decided to join the Rangers five years ago because he was impressed by their dedication.
“I saw those guys out there working so hard for no pay, and it really captured my interest,” he says. “I ended up being recruited; five years later I’m second in command. They are the hardest working guys out there, and they never get paid a penny.”
The rigorous commitment of volunteering as a Ranger requires that high level of dedication. In order to be fully approved and active, volunteers must complete the same type Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST for short, required by the state to become a police officer. Although in the past the Rangers were not approved to attend certified POST academies, their program did include the same extensive training in the use of firearms, first aid and CPR and arrest protocol. It’s no wonder that close to 50 percent of all Rangers have prior military experience or that 20 percent are retired, transitioning or still-active law enforcement with other agencies. The Rangers training and experience is so highly regarded that young men and women interested in a law enforcement career often volunteer as a way to bolster their resumes.
Because of their reputation for being qualified and hardworking, the Rangers are always in high demand. The CMR currently maintains operational memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, with 55 law enforcement, fire and other governmental agencies across the state. Its Rangers work side by side in cases where a larger law enforcement presence may be required. On average, the Rangers provide 50,000 hours of volunteer service per year to local departments.
“The average volunteer puts in 20-25 hours a month, and that’s a lot,” Tolbert says. He says that the demand for Rangers is always greater than the number of qualified volunteers. “I often have to tell departments we just don’t have the resources.”
And the Rangers’ contribution to their communities is not limited only to largescale event response; the Rangers also offer education programs to help residents help themselves. These classes include CAPs, or community awareness programs, which teach community members how to recognize and report possible terrorism, as well as Refuse to Be a Victim classes, which teach commonsense situational awareness like parking under streetlights and basic self-defense.
“We also work pretty closely with the town of Elizabeth’s high school and law enforcement to teach kids who are interested in law enforcement some basic training like self-defense, basic firearms and verbal de-escalation,” Tolbert says. “It really helps the community feel more resilient, and the kids feel more resilient.”
MODERNIZING THE RANGERS
The last 10 years marked yet another transition in the identity and organization of the Rangers. Increased standards in training, uniform and conduct, in addition to more rigorous screening procedures, caused some turnover in personnel and dismantled the impression of the Rangers as, in Tolbert’s words, “a group of cowboy vigilantes.” The CMR now employs the same vigorous hiring proceedings as police and sheriff’s departments. Volunteers must undergo extensive background checks and psychological evaluations, provide multiple references and have their social media use evaluated. Tolbert estimates that the psych evaluations wash out around 20 percent of all applicants, ensuring that every Ranger is mentally as well as physically prepared for any situation they may encounter.
In addition to changing public perception, these stringent requirements paid off with the state government. In March 2012, Senate Bill 12-072 was passed, officially returning the Colorado Mounted Rangers to state statutes for the first time in 85 years. The organization’s more official status strengthened relationships between the CMR and local law enforcement, increasing MOUs from 15 to 55 in just one year and boosting recruitment numbers.
Functioning as a law enforcement agency without the same protections, full certifications and funding as a normal agency caused some problems for the Rangers, however. In 2016, the CMR, law enforcement agencies and state government officials decided that a detailed evaluation of the Rangers and their functioning as an organization needed to take place. A task force made up of representatives from multiple agencies was formed and, after nine months of evaluation, submitted its conclusions to Colorado Senate and House Judiciary committees in December 2016.
It was determined that the Colorado Mounted Rangers should be made into an intergovernmental agency, or IGA, and transform from CMR into CLER, or the Colorado Rangers Law Enforcement Shared Reserve, which would allow for several needed changes to take place. Most importantly, Rangers will now be able to attend official POST academy locations to receive the same official certification given to other law enforcement officers, and the Rangers will eventually be able to form their own POST training academy. The changes will continue to elevate the effectiveness of the Rangers and increase their ability to work closely with other law enforcement agencies.
Current volunteers are set to begin official POST academy training in the spring, which will begin a new chapter in the history of the Rangers. Though recruitment was closed while the transition from CMR to CLER took place, applications to the Rangers will be considered again beginning this month.
Qualified, motivated individuals are encouraged to apply. The Rangers’ well-organized website, coloradoranger.org, offers a wealth of information about the Rangers, a submission form for questions or requests and a detailed description of steps in the application process.
The next time you attend a summer festival or your community faces a fire or flood, keep your eyes open for the Colorado Rangers. It’s likely they will be there, keeping you safe. Give them a thank you from all of us who value their selfless service.
Julie Simpson is a Texan who loves writing about her home state of Colorado.