As the only female police chief in the Texas Panhandle and one of only a handful in the state, Cactus Police Department Chief Maribel Tiarzon is used to having to prove herself. As a patrol officer at the beginning of her career and later as an investigator in the diverse city of Cactus, Tiarzon had to overcome challenges from day one that her training had not really prepared her for. "It was challenging at first with the different cultures, especially the Burmese, Sudanese, Somalis, and Guatemalans. I used to work by myself from 6pm to 6am. I was the only officer out in the city. I did have the backup of the Moore County Sheriff's Office, but they had the whole county to cover. In those days, we had a lot of domestic violence calls, and I would get to the home and tell the man to step outside, and he would say, 'No, you are a girl.' I did get in a lot of struggles, and I was by myself. There were days when I thought maybe this isn't for me. My parents and husband would tell me, 'You really shouldn't be a police officer. You are a girl, and you are too small … that is not a job for you.' That always made me want to show them that I could do it. That was what kept me coming back every day."
She did keep going back, and after wrestling enough men to jail, they gradually came to understand that she was someone who had to be taken seriously. "They knew that even though I was a female, I was going to take them to jail and that I was still going to put cuffs on them and still going to tell them what to do," she said. Being the only police officer on duty at night made her use a form of "community policing" to try and keep conflict at a minimum. "I would always try to be calm and respectful, because I was out there by myself. I would try to make friends. When I was patrolling the city, I would stop and introduce myself to people, because I thought 'if I get into a struggle, maybe this guy will help me.' "
She befriended a group of Somali men who regularly played dominos outside of an apartment block. When she had to break up a fight one day, and one of the men "wanted to disrespect me, the rest of the guys defended me." She got to know the elders of the Burmese community and learned to not wave with her left hand or walk across Muslim prayer rugs. She approached a group of people celebrating Ramadan to ask what was going on and received an invitation to eat. "I thought 'I am the only one out here, I need to get these people on my side,' " she said. "I would tell them I was there to fight the crime and keep everybody safe."
In the days when there were five bars in Cactus, drunks walking through the city was a nightly problem. Tiarzon says she would usually just drive them home rather than arrest them "because if took them to jail, it would take more than an hour to go through the booking process and everything, and that would mean the city would be uncovered by police for that entire time."
If reaching out to the community was a survival strategy as a patrol officer on her own, it is something that she has continued with her entire department as chief. She insists that her officers get out of their cars and and talk to people. "I think this is why we have created such a good relationship with them. I think they feel like we care about them, if we stop by instead of just driving by," she said. She says she has her officers be at the school every morning as the children arrive to be a presence and talk to people. Though there are an enormous number of cars and trucks driving through Cactus every day on US 287, she has her officers concentrate on the rest of the city. "I tell them 'you are not the highway patrol.' I feel like we need to work for our community," she said. "I tell my officers that more than anything they are the servants, the public servants. I tell them 'You are not more than anybody. You are just the same as that drunk out in the street. You had the opportunity to go to college and become a police officer, and they didn't, but you are their servant, a public servant."
Guatemalan children used to run and hide when they saw police cars coming. Cactus police officers began handing out stickers and other goodies. Now the children, having lost their fear, chase police cars asking for stickers and treats, Tiarzon says.
Tiarzon credits using a more diplomatic approach to policing, along with an expansion of the police department, for a reduction in crime in Cactus. "Things have improved a lot in Cactus," she said.
The Cactus Police Department has come a long way since the days when Tiarzon says she moved some boxes in the evidence room of the old police station and found a rattle snake. She says the mayor, city manager, and city commission, have been very supportive of her and the department since the day in 2016 that City Manager Aldo Gallegos asked her to take over as chief in the wake of the abrupt resignation of her predecessor, Mike Broyles. Tiarzon was the department's first investigator at the time, and she was not enthusiastic about giving that job up to become chief. "I loved being an investigator. It was what I wanted to do when I went into criminal justice," she said. "I told Aldo that that job is for an old person who has 40 years of experience. That's not for me." But she says Gallegos insisted that he, the mayor, the commissioners, and most importantly, her fellow officers wanted her to take the job. She took it for six months on an interim basis to see if she liked it, and she decided to stay.
Little girls sometimes come up to her slightly awestruck and ask, "Are you really their boss?" But Tiarzon, who was born and raised in Dumas, says she sees her job as more of a guide than a boss. She says she grows attached to her officers and tries to communicate with them to know what their strengths and weaknesses are and try to help them, but she has been tough enough to let some go when necessary, though she says it is difficult. Asked what the reaction of her male colleagues has been to having a female chief, she responded, "At the beginning, there were officers concerned, because they had more experience than me, but they have never disrespected me. I have never had anyone challenge me on anything."
Though she has to spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks as chief, Tiarzon tries to go out an patrol as much as she can, and she still sees herself as a patrol officer and investigator. "I am always in uniform, so they know that if they need help, I will be out there with them," she said.
Tiarzon credits her officers for the success and recognition she and the department have earned. She was awarded the "Citizen of the Year" award in 2018 by the Moore County Chamber of Commerce. "I think it is the officers that have accomplished more; like I said, I feel like I am just here to kind of guide. The department is what it is because of the officers who care. You can have a leader, but if your officers don't care about the job, one person can't do it all, so I think it is the officers who care and do such a good job that makes it such a great place.
As a bilingual, Hispanic, female police chief with training and experience as an investigator, Tiarzon could move on to more lucrative jobs elsewhere in the state, but she says she wants to stay in Cactus. "The Cactus Police Department gave me the opportunity to become a police officer here, and they gave me so much training. The commissioners, the mayor, the city manager, the officers here believed in me to give me this position, so I feel like I need to stay here, so I don't have any intention of leaving here."