In small towns, single-cop hires make a difference
By Nigel Duara
CENTERVILLE, Iowa — In small towns, one more cop really does make a difference.
In the rural Iowa town of Centerville, just one more officer will help the eight-person department investigate a church burning, a kidnapping case and a slaying that happened last year alone. The single hire in Princess Anne, Md., will fill a second investigator slot. And in Cando, N.D., it will prevent the only two officers from burning out as they try to protect their town 24-7.
"We're not a very big town, but we're extremely busy," Centerville Police Chief Tom Demry said. "We're one of poorest counties in the state. ... We just daily have more than our fair share."
These towns all qualified for one more cop through a $1 billion federal economic stimulus program that nationwide will pay for 4,699 officers. In some cities, that will mean 10 or 20 new hires. But in 530 small communities, more than half of the departments receiving the money, it will pay for a single new hire - and for that they're grateful.
"It makes a whole lot of difference," said Police Chief Ray Sales in Buena Vista, Ga., who plans to hire a sixth officer "Most of the time I would work by myself, pull the shift by myself, but now I've got somebody that will work with me."
To visitors walking through Centerville's leafy town square, the area appears to be prospering. But the southern Iowa town of 5,400 gets more ragged toward its edges.
More than 500 people lost their jobs when the Rubbermaid Home Products plant closed in 2006, hurting a community that already was dealing with low wages and drug problems, Appanoose County Attorney Richard Scott said.
Crime reached a high point in the past year, with the kidnapping, church burning and homicide cases. Any one of the crimes would have taxed the small police department. The sheriff's office helped, but the killing of a 56-year-old woman and wounding of her estranged husband was especially difficult.
"We had to have guys work overtime, working extra hours on days off," Demry said.
The federal grants were calculated based on factors including unemployment, foreclosures and poverty rates as well as FBI crime rates.
The Centerville Police Department will add one officer with the federal money and another officer with money from the city budget to bring the total police force to 10, including Demry.
"One thing that we see a lot of is the problems span generations," Demry said. "We have kids now, 20 years ago their parents were doing the same thing, and their grandparents. I know that sounds terrible, but it's true."
Demry plans to assign an officer to the schools and hopes that will help break that cycle. The officer will give young children a positive impression of the law and will make it easier for high school students to talk with police.
Centerville High School Principal Bill Messerrole said it's been five years since an officer was assigned to the schools, but he remembers that back then, the officer made a difference.
"We were able to resolve a lot of issues that potentially could have been criminal but were solved before they got to that point," he said.
Stan Maddy, who works in a downtown sporting goods store, said whether in the schools or on the streets, one officer would really help the tight-knit community.
"You'll get small-town problems, not gangs or anything, that one officer can handle," Maddy said. "Small kids learn not to be scared of a police officer."
It's a similar situation in Cando, N.D., where Police Chief John Rose said his 1,200-person town makes about 50 calls a month to the police department.
"We have mainly disturbance or nuisance calls, like a barking dog or a dog at large," Rose said. "Nothing real bad."
But it's been tough to keep up since one officer was lost in budget cuts two years ago. Despite help from a part-time officer, Rose said he and the other full-time officer struggle not to burnout.
"It's just hard with two guys to provide 24-7 coverage," Rose said.
Rose said he was surprised to get funding with so much competition - the federal program, called Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, received requests from 7,272 police agencies that would have totaled $8.3 billion. Ultimately, the nearly $1 billion was split between 1,046 agencies with at least $5 million going to each state.
The grants came at a perfect time in Beatrice, Neb., where Police Chief Bruce Lang faced laying off one of his 22 officers because of budget numbers he described as "plain ugly."
The $158,600 from the COPS program means Lang won't have to lay off any officers. The crime rate has remained steady in the town of 13,000, and Lang hopes it can stay that way.
"One person means a lot in a small town," Lang said.