Longform

Tragic Consequences Follow Mayor Tom Rankin's Control of Politics and Police in Florence

SPECIAL REPORT: FLORENCE EXPOSED | Third of three parts


Seated in a conference room near his Florence Town Hall office and dressed in his standard collared shirt, silver belt buckle, cowboy hat, jeans, and roughed-up cowboy boots, Mayor Tom Rankin looks as if he has stepped out of Florence's frontier past.

And minus the sidearm and badge he wore when he was the town's chief of police from 1980 to 1994, this is pretty much how he appeared during his 14-year reign over the Florence Police Department.

Rankin still prefers the title he says he used to go by, before Florence began to give lip service to the tenets of modern law enforcement: town marshal.

"I guess I fit more of that [title] than police chief," Rankin, 67, explains during an interview with New Times. "As far as the Western town marshal goes."

In Arizona statutes, the words "marshal" and "chief of police" are used interchangeably to mean a law enforcement officer who is either appointed or elected by a city or town. For some time in Florence, the town manager (hired by the Town Council) has appointed the police chief.

Yet the more antique term of "marshal" suggests a time when one man represented the law in a town.

Rankin has not overseen Florence's small police force directly in almost a decade, but he still likes to remind people of who is in charge. Particularly when he is having one of his infamous public fits of temper.

The most recent of these incidents occurred in May, when an inspector with the Pinal County Department of Health was checking the food booths at a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, held on the Florence High School football field.

Rankin got in the woman's face, pointing his finger at her and yelling, according to a police report.

"Yeah, I raised a little hell with that," Rankin admits. "I never threatened her .  .  . Nothing came of it. They looked at filing charges against me. There wasn't nothing to file."

The Coolidge City Attorney investigated the woman's complaint and decided not to bring charges. Rankin says he was riled because the inspector made a fuss over one booth handing out cold pizza and the lack of sinks for food handlers to wash their hands.

He admits he probably said something about the inspector not coming to "his town" to do health inspection.

"Everybody says I call it 'my town,' okay?" grumbles Rankin. "And I do . . . That's just an expression for me. I'm not trying to say that I run the town."

And yet, there are those who say Rankin runs Florence like a personal fiefdom.

"People try to turn it around like I'm trying to say I'm King Rankin or some goddamn thing like that," Rankin says.

On paper, Rankin has no more than one vote out of seven on the Florence Town Council.

But through a combination of bully politics, persuasion, and force of will, he maintains his influence over the 62-square-mile municipality, founded in 1866, that has twice as many incarcerated residents in its 10 corrections and detention facilities than it does non-incarcerated citizens.

The town's 30-officer police force reflects Rankin's prejudices — racial and otherwise — and his adherence to a system of provincial favoritism. Florence's back-slapping style of governance is extolled by the mayor as the best way of doing business.

Florence is Rankin's town. Its leadership, citizenry, and police force bend to his will, even when doing so arguably is not to the town's advantage. Even when following in Rankin's footsteps reaps injustice.


"In eighth grade, I knew I wanted to be a cop," Rankin says. "A cowboy cop."

Asked why he wanted to be a "cowboy cop," Rankin shrugs his shoulders.

But if you visit the Pinal County Historical Society and Museum on Main Street in Florence or leaf through the picture book the society produced in 2007 with the help of Arcadia Publishing, it is apparent why becoming a "cowboy cop" might have appealed to an impressionable eighth-grader growing up in the town.

Displays at the museum feature a collection of memorabilia from cowboy film legend Tom Mix, who died in a car crash just outside Florence, as well as nooses from which notorious outlaws were hanged at the Arizona State Prison, which moved to Florence from its territorial home in Yuma in the early 1900s.

There are displays of guns, saddles, bullets, and badges. Museum guides regale visitors with tales of the 1888 shootout between Sheriff Peter Gabriel and deputy Josephus Phy at the Tunnel Saloon. Or recount legends associated with such Old West outlaws as the murderous Apache Kid or stagecoach-robbing Pearl Hart, the "Lady Bandit."

In the Images of America: Florence picture book, there are plenty of photos of cowboys and cowboy cops: mounted cowboy guards from the state prison and wardens in cowboy attire and on horseback.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons