Move over, Chuck Norris: softer side of Texas Rangers

The gunslinging force that tamed Texas is hardly known for maternalways. Christine Nix symbolizes a new face of Lone Star law enforcement.

Christine Nix knows that she isn't exactly what people expect in a Texas Ranger. Maybe it's her perfect makeup and lipstick. Or her throaty laugh.

"A lot of times you say, 'I'm a Texas Ranger,' and there will be this five-second delay, like the information is being assimilated ... but this does not compute," laughs Sergeant Nix, one of only two females in the elite state police force of 108.

"Then they do that squint," she says, mimicking a citizen checking out her badge.

But if anyone doubts that Nix is a Texas Ranger, one of those mythical law-enforcement officers who tamed the Wild West and quickly became dime-novel heroes, she has the steel star and the gun to prove it. Her warm, empathetic style in investigating murders, rapes, white-collar crime, or political corruption contrasts strongly with that of her male peers - and even more so from the early Rangers, who were paid to hunt down and eliminate bandits and Apaches. But her presence is also a sign of how much Texas society has changed, and how Texas law enforcement may someday change as well.

"Today's Rangers reflect the new century," says Mike Cox, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which oversees the Texas Rangers. (As a sideline, Mr. Cox has written numerous books on the Rangers' history, including "Texas Ranger Tales.") Recruiting female Rangers "is just a part of changing with the times," he adds.

Statistically, the Texas Rangers are far behind other state law-enforcement agencies in recruiting women. Nationwide, women make up about 13.8 percent of all law-enforcement officers, and 4 percent in state police agencies, versus about 2 percent in the Rangers.

Legendary past

But integrating the Rangers is not just a matter of hiring every female applicant. Most Rangers hold onto their positions until they retire, and for each opening, there will be 150 to 300 applicants.

Formed in 1823 to protect Stephen Austin's fledgling colony of Anglo settlers in east Texas, the Rangers were initially little more than a band of hired guns, paid $15 a month. After Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836 and merged with the United States in 1846, the Rangers moved from a militia to a paramilitary role, routing Indian tribes, keeping the peace - and sometimes breaking it - in Hispanic-dominated south Texas.

It is this mythical history of "taming the American West" that gave the Rangers their fame, and their Hollywood appeal. What they lacked in skin color, they made up for with colorful names like Big Foot Walker, R.M. "Three-Legged" Williamson, and John "Rip" Ford, whose nickname stood for "Rest in Peace."

Their methods were born of the harsh open prairie, often learned from confronting marauding Apaches, Comanches, and Mexican bandits. Their credo was summed up by an early Ranger captain, Bill McDonald: "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'."

And then along came Christine Nix. Hired in 1994 after 17 years in law enforcement (she served in the Temple, Texas, police force and later recruited state police agents for the DPS), Nix acknowledges she had a somewhat rocky entry into the Texas Rangers. Now she's not sure what all the fuss is about.

"The problem with the Rangers is that when you have a mythical select group, it's a little daunting to say, 'Am I going to be able to step up to the plate and take a hit for your team,' " says Nix, her office adorned with drawings by her two kids. "You earn a right of passage based on how devoted you are to the team."

Like every Ranger, Nix knows she must adapt to each case, working on a rape one day, a financial scandal the next. "I have more on my plate than I can say grace over," she jokes. It's a far cry from desperado-hunting, and Nix thinks she can bring different skills to her work than her male peers. "I think sometimes people have this idea of what a Texas Ranger looks like, and then there's me, saying, 'Baby, it's gonna be all right,' " she says, adding that she sometimes calls victims days later to see if they're all right. "It's like your mama interviewing you, and I use that to my advantage."

If Nix represents the future of the Texas Rangers, her supervisor, Lt. Clete Buckaloo, looks like a central-casting image of its past. He has the square jaw, muscular frame, and the polite demeanor of a matinee hero, and a growing appreciating of Nix's maternal methods. "Christine is very patient, caring, empathetic - she wants to do the right thing, like we all do," says Lieutenant Buckaloo. "But when you're talking about a sexual-assault case, or a child-abuse investigation that involves a female victim, there's no doubt that Christine or any female officer may bring something that their male counterparts don't. There's an empathy there."

But on a cultural level, integrating women into the Rangers - particularly women of color such as Nix - is a break with the past. After all, the Rangers may have an evocative ring for Anglo Texans, but their historical effect on black, Hispanic, and native Americans was much harsher.

"The Texas Rangers were a law unto themselves - they were able to roam about and decide which Mexicans could live and which would die," says Neil Foley, professor of Mexican American history at the University of Texas, Austin. "They were there to ensure the peaceful transition from a Mexican ranching economy to an Anglo farming economy, one that relied on slaves." He pauses. "The transition was not smooth."

Of course, brutality is not the image cultivated either by Hollywood or by today's force. And while Texans may not see many female Rangers just yet, they are getting used to female law enforcers in at least one area.

A pathbreaking county

Margo Frasier, sheriff of Travis County, knows what it takes to confront the macho Texas culture. She led her department to recruit women, to the point that Travis County Sheriff's Department, with a 36 percent female officer corps, is now the second highest concentration of female law officers in the country (behind the Dayton Police Department in Ohio). "Although we have the macho side to Texas, there's also this pride that Texans have in pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and making something of yourself, man or woman," says Sheriff Frasier.

And today's female officers are no shrinking violets. "In a confrontation, I'll tell people you can either walk out of here and you can tell your friends, 'I can't hit a girl,' or you can walk out of here and have your friends say, 'Man, she whooped your butt,' " says Frasier.

For all the attention she's received, there's a part of Christine Nix that wishes the news media would stop calling and just let her get on with her job. But she still gets humbled by the reaction she gets from older African-Americans when they see their first black female Texas Ranger.

"They tell me, 'Baby, I never thought I'd see the day,' " she says, smiling, "and then all the starch inside of you that keeps you professional just goes away."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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