As a monitor of law enforcement news, I frequently see headlines about small police departments affected by simultaneous resignations or simply being dissolved. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is subject to debate.
The demands on modern law enforcement are intense and expensive. Recent legislation, media scrutiny, and anti-police sentiment have undoubtedly made it more difficult to recruit for small police agencies. Larger agencies, also feeling the recruitment and retention squeeze, already typically offered more in pay, benefits, and professional growth opportunities but many have recently increased financial incentives to lure officers from smaller agencies.
Defining a small agency is tricky. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 70 percent of agencies serve communities of fewer than 10,000 population. Over 90% of local law enforcement agencies employ fewer than 50 sworn officers/deputies and serve populations of less than 50,000. A town with a small population may need a larger department than one might think at first glance. If they are part of a metropolitan area, near a major employer, or along a busy interstate, they may serve a transient population of several thousand more than just their permanent residents.
Some small agencies came into being or came back to life in the 1990s with federal funding under the Clinton-era community policing grants. Some were sustained by traffic enforcement in speed traps until states began to clamp down on towns that generated too much of their revenue from writing ethically questionable tickets as a fundraiser. With those restrictions and the loss of grant funding, some very small agencies were not sustainable. Big Bend, Wisconsin eliminated its department of three full-time and nine part-time officers to contract with its sheriff’s department at a savings of over $200,000.
Working conditions in small agencies can be particularly onerous. Depending on the agency size, the department could be exempt from federal labor laws that govern overtime pay. Officers may be required to be on call with little or no compensation, work additional hours for their regular wage, and be expected to be available to cover shifts for officers who are injured, out sick, or on administrative leave. If the officer lives in the area where they work, they cannot escape their police status when off-duty, always at risk of encountering a hostile person or expected to hear a complaint or answer a legal question.
In other cases, scandals called into question the need for an independent police department and whether its reputation could be repaired. Although hiring standards are becoming less rigid to gain applicants, those with less than stellar backgrounds sometimes find that getting hired at a small agency is possible when they might have been weeded out in a more rigorous process.
For example, Coffee City, Texas Police Chief JohnJay Portillo was suspended for hiring officers with questionable backgrounds and the police department was deactivated. The small town of 250 residents had fifty full-time or reserve officers. More than half had left their previous police jobs due to allegations of misconduct before being hired by Portillo who quadrupled the number of officers for the town since his appointment in 2021.
Most communities rely on their sheriff’s office to take on response to calls for police service, either relying on the sheriff’s statutory responsibility for the citizens within the city’s boundaries or contracting for specific services and coverage. Cities can also contract with other nearby jurisdictions for services.
The disappearance of a local police department is a loss of part of a town’s identity. It also removes direct accountability for law enforcement services from the control of town councils and residents. Law enforcement involvement in community activities, a core element of community policing, can suffer with an outside agency having less connection to the citizenry.
On the plus side, there is no evidence that crime increases in most cases when a town’s police department is eliminated. Sheriff’s offices can use the advantages of scale and resources to potentially provide an equal or even better quality of policing. In most jurisdictions, the office of Sheriff is still an elected position and, therefore, subject to the voters in democratic accountability and independence from outside influences.
Residents may celebrate or lament the loss of a small police department but they all want someone with a badge and gun to answer their 911 call.