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3 things cops learn at rural agencies

Policing looks different when the guy you arrested at the bar fight last Friday asks if you need help today


Rural cops work long hours with little radio coverage and less backup, keeping their chosen communities safe.

Photo/Steve Beltran

More than half the cops in the nation work in jurisdictions with 10,000 residents or less, and nearly half of all departments have only 10 officers or less, but you’d never guess that from your news feed, or popular TV and movies.

Because these agencies are widely scattered, it’s easy to miss what happens between the big urban centers.

Here are a few of the lessons officers learn working in rural and remote places; some are hard-earned, even harder for officers who choose that life after growing up in the city.

1. There are no specialists here

Everyone’s met that retired road dog from a major metro who brags he never wrote a report longer than a field interview card: “We just ran from call to call every night!”

His life will not be your life.

There’s no CSI here and few detectives. You’ll learn to process your own scene from initial interview to lifting prints, taking photos and measurements, and follow-up investigation, all the way to court testimony.

If you’re a game warden, you’ll learn to post downed game, take tissue samples for biologists and search buildings with town marshals.

If you’re highway patrol, you’ll back up deputies on domestics.

If you’re Forest Service, you’ll run code for the trooper taking fire on a back road traffic stop.

If you’re a deputy, you’ll learn granola bars will lure errant livestock out of the median, how to put out a grass fire, and the sad, delicate art of interviewing very young abuse victims.

You’ll take burglary reports, answer robbery alarms, and hike, paddle or rappel on SAR cases. You’ll learn to keep a case of MREs and another of water in the back of your rig, next to the tacmed kit, the chainsaw and the rain gear.

You’ll probably find you’re responsible for maintaining your own vehicle, and doing your own IT back in the office, too.

2. Community policing isn’t a fad, it’s just life

Rural officers generally don’t get training on “community policing.” They are the community, and they are the police. It’s that simple.

They’re Little League coaches and church volunteers. Their kids go to the same school as the kids they see in court. Everyone knows where they live, and sometimes there’s only one bank or hardware store.

Policing looks different when the guy you arrested at the bar fight last Friday asks if you need help today because you treated him respectfully, and he’s sober now anyway.

Rural officers learn to quickly become masters of de-escalation. A little extra time, a silver tongue and roadside diplomacy can short-circuit conflict, which is essential when backup is far away.

A retired LAPD officer who came to work in a three-man, rural agency reminisced about his early patrol days, saying, “I never thought twice about going into any situation, or walking into any fight, because I knew there’d be a dozen officers with me in minutes, seconds. Here there aren’t a dozen officers in the entire county, even if you include all the federal and state guys.”

And on that note: interagency rivalries aren’t really a thing when you work in the middle of nowhere. If you need backup 20 miles out on a dirt road you learn not to be picky about the shape of the badge that answers your call.

3. “Rural” doesn’t necessarily translate into a “lower cost of living”

For a lot of rural agencies, especially small town or county departments, low pay is an unfortunate but accepted fact. Rural officers learn that lower compensation isn’t necessarily offset by corresponding lower costs of living.

Coastal areas, counties near popular national parks and rural areas with tourist draws like ski resorts that attract wealthy buyers of vacation homes can easily drive home prices far beyond the reach of law enforcement families.

In remote places, transportation costs ratchet up the costs of commodities like fuel and groceries. Lack of competition increases costs for health insurance and medical care. Fire or flood risks can make homeowner’s insurance, and therefore a mortgage, unattainable.

Hidden costs sneak in.

Where city officers routinely depend on a spouse’s income or a second job, opportunities for both can be sparse in rural or remote areas.

In cities, childcare is expensive, and care overnight or on weekends is hard to find, so some parents manage by taking jobs with opposing shifts. In a rural area, it’s completely possible that neither the childcare service nor the flexible job opportunities exist, at all.

Factored in over years, a family’s ability to buy a home, or save for retirement can be seriously impacted unless there is a supportive extended family nearby.

Scenery doesn’t pay the bills, and you can’t eat it.

Even when they thoroughly love their work, the tens of thousands of rural officers across the country learn to be realistic.

Whether you see them in the news or not, rural law enforcement officers are out there – on the road, in the small towns, on the water, in the woods and the desert – working long hours with little radio coverage and less backup, keeping their chosen communities safe.

They’re jacks-of-all-trades with badges, and most of them wouldn’t have it any other way.

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.