Trending Topics

No one-size-fits-all: The wild variability in policing

Exposing the startling lack of consistency in police policies and standards across different states, from training requirements to pay scales

Rural LE  column.jpg

Policing extremes on the Guadalupe, Texas salt flats.

I started writing about rural law enforcement eight years ago on social media and a private blog, and was then invited to write this Police1 column in 2019. Here are some things I’ve learned since then.

“He’s out of my jurisdiction” really is a thing

A film bad guy running for the county line is an entertainment trope. At some point, all the pursuing officers lock up brakes like reining horses because “He’s out of our jurisdiction!” And I thought that was made up for TV.

I lived in California, where all sworn officers are peace officers of the state who happen to wear the uniform of and draw their pay from a specific agency. Jurisdiction is a matter of courtesy and communication but doesn’t influence powers of arrest.

Once I started talking to officers from other states, I learned that legal authority in many places actually is tied to lines on a map. In others, authority may instead attach to the person of a sheriff, creating a void if something happens to that person.

Case in point: a New Mexico sheriff died in a car wreck in 2017. All of his deputies were immediately considered to be without police powers until state police stepped in to re-deputize them as state police mounted patrol officers.

It was awkward and confusing to the public, and an issue I never knew existed.

East and West really are different

I grew up mostly in the eastern US and then moved out west after college. The differences impact law enforcement in ways I didn’t foresee.

Western states are ENORMOUS, with counties bigger than some states back east. This means lower population density and often arduous commutes for officers living in rural places.

Nearly all land in the eastern US is privately owned, making the enforcement of wildlife and conservation regulations challenging. In theory, private ownership should provide a reliable tax base for funding emergency services. However, that land may be carved up in so many pieces that realistic funding for law enforcement can be tough. Kentucky has 120 counties and therefore 120 sheriffs in a state one third the size of New Mexico, which has 30 sheriffs. Add in state and local law enforcement and you can see how tiny every slice is when that many people need access to a fiscal pie.

In contrast, some Western states consist of up to 80% public land. It can’t be developed for housing or businesses, and it doesn’t contribute to the tax base. Other oddities, like checkerboard private and public lands in Wyoming and Montana trigger enforcement headaches utterly unknown to Eastern cops.

The many cultural differences could be its own topic. In New York, the tradition of “courtesy cards” remains in use; in California, they’re illegal. Scraps of archaic English common law — and in Louisiana even French law — affect civil enforcement and the courts to this day in many Eastern states. Western states are more likely to be influenced by legal relics of range and water wars in the 1800s.

The safest place to work isn’t the smallest

For five years, I’ve tracked officers shot by where the incidents happen, and I’ve learned one thing I never expected: the least-populated places aren’t the ones where the fewest officers get shot. Stereotypes and presumptions aside, it’s the in-between towns of 11,000 to 30,000 residents that seem to be the least dangerous for LEOs, rather than the really small towns from 1 to 10,999. I spend a lot of time trying to convince others of that truth, especially the ones who write the budgets for training and staffing.

Private police exist but they’re treated like second class cops

A Wintergreen, Virginia officer was killed in the line of duty in 2023; despite being a state-certified officer, his survivors were denied death benefits. It turns out that some departments in that state are “private police” and in a separate class from the rest of state law enforcement for legislative reasons and definitions I don’t completely understand. A bill was introduced to change that inequity but failed to pass the Virginia House after unanimously passing the Senate.

I did not know that private police were a thing; the closest I knew of were railroad police.

Pay scales and methods are all over the place

Constables in some states are effectively self-employed and still rely on fees for services rendered. No papers or warrants to serve? No payday this time around.

In Oklahoma, some deputy sheriffs still start at $10 an hour, a fact eclipsed by the “average” of $59,000 per year cited for Oklahoma officers on some employment websites.

The public presumes officers augment insufficient pay scales with lots of overtime, but overtime isn’t available in a lot of departments. They just stop patrolling when they run out of budgeted hours. In the very smallest — of which there are a lot more than you’d think — Fair Labor and Standards Act regulations don’t apply, so even if the officers are ordered to keep working, they may not get paid at a higher rate.

Montana state law links deputy pay to a percentage of the sheriff’s salary. Mississippi goes a step further and dictates specific pay scales for every sheriff in the state, depending on the size and population of each county, with lots of add-ons and caveats for special circumstances. Another code section in Mississippi precludes any public employee (read, deputy) making more than their boss (sheriff), which may result in overtime cutoffs.

Safety, disability and workers’ compensation laws are even more disorganized

One of the first things I learned from a reader (an industrial hygienist) is that OSHA doesn’t apply to local law enforcement. Therefore, officers who work in states without their own OSHA also work without regulations requiring safety equipment or training, or even basic vehicle maintenance. It’s still very much Upton Sinclair’s “jungle” out there.

Disability and retirement policies and laws vary enormously depending on where an officer works. I wrote about that here and the research was enraging. Workers’ compensation has only one theme: keeping costs low for employers. In my naivete, I thought it was a way of making workers whole when they were injured (you know, it’s in the name!). I’ve learned it is instead a cage fight, one best pursued with a gnarly lawyer. Many states allow even public employers to self-insure, which limits benefits. Texas even allows employers to opt out of workers comp entirely. It’s called “going bare.”

Sentencing for attacks on cops has actually gotten stiffer over time, with one exception

The common narrative for public safety writers is that penalties are softening for violence against cops, but I’ve learned that depends on when and where you look.

Scroll through the Officer Down Memorial Page’s “Today in History” section and marvel at the number of historical cop killers acquitted or pardoned, like this and this and this. Even well into the 20th century, you can find plenty of jaw-droppers, like the murderer of a young deputy in 1965, sentenced for manslaughter but serving only a few years.

With one exception, sentencing has become exponentially harsher. That exception?

Violence against game wardens, which still rarely garners the kind of sentencing it deserves. Poachers find it too easy to claim they thought the officers were game animals, and it’s too hard to convince juries otherwise.

Political action and speech isn’t protected even off duty in a lot of places

California has a Peace Officer Bill of Rights. I didn’t know other states don’t, necessarily. One of the major benefits is the protection afforded off-duty political speech and action: officers can’t be fired for running for sheriff, let alone displaying a yard sign supporting a local candidate or endorsing one. In places where at-will employment is the law, political affiliation with anyone but your current boss can be a fast lane to the unemployment line and there’s no realistic recourse.

There are no rules that apply everywhere

Literally, none. There are states where the only requirement to be elected sheriff is to be a registered voter; in others, candidates must be POST-certified, experienced officers. Some states (Alaska, Connecticut) don’t have sheriffs at all, and in Pennsylvania, sheriffs don’t investigate criminal matters. The Los Alamos, New Mexico sheriff’s only duty is to maintain the sex offender registry.

There are departments that still don’t have standardized field training officer programs. There are (too many) departments that perform only basic, in-state criminal background checks before hiring, while others are required by law to do extensive, in-person investigations. Dozens of states permit officers to patrol before ever attending an academy.

In some states, academy cadets may self-sponsor and then search for jobs as a free agent; in others, they have to be hired first and wait their turn for an open spot at the next academy. There may only be one academy in a state, or the academies may be part of the community college system, and big departments may all run their own. It just depends.

Even job titles mean different things in different places. Some states use the title “marshal” in small towns where others use “police chief”, so deputy marshals are what other places call police officers. In other areas, marshals do courts and judicial security but don’t patrol. There are reserve officers and special deputies, and exactly what that means depends on where they are; same with constables, where those still exist. I still can’t keep it all straight.

Cops are political orphans

A given in public safety media right now is that liberal politicians are writing off cops wholesale, while conservative ones value them. I’ve learned it’s not that simple.

Take a look at the National Fraternal Order of Police weekly legislative update, and pay special attention to that tally of bill sponsors on the page labeled “top legislative priorities.” When I did, I found that if the bill has to do with officer safety, guns and criminal penalties, the sponsors in red far outnumber the ones in blue. If the bill has to do with benefits, retirement, or help with funding for LEO mortgages or education, the numbers flip: blue sponsors far outnumber the red ones. No party has a monopoly on political support for cops.

While nearly all of this list affects all the agencies in a given region, it’s the rural and small towns that I (mostly) write about that will have the hardest time overcoming these inconsistencies while bringing policing into modern standards. Many of the oddities that negatively impact line officers are connected not with public order or safety, but money and political control. Both are hard to change.

We view every topic through filters of our own experience, and think that’s all there is. Nothing tears that filter down like writing on the same topic for years, with an open mind and an open inbox. I write to inform others, but the one who learns the most is me.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.