8 issues that keep rural police chiefs awake at night
Rural agencies face complex challenges; here’s a roundup plus some solutions to the problems at hand
The problems that face small agencies, particularly those in a rural setting, are unique. The key to solving them is to turn what many see as deficiencies into opportunities. The agency can “repackage” these issues into attractive incentives.
Here are eight things that keep me awake at night as a rural police chief, with some strategies to address these issues.
The problem: Lack of eligible applicants and high turnover as larger agencies offer more pay and better benefits along with opportunities to advance.
Many agencies are small, especially those in rural settings. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016 data lists some 12,000+ agencies and more than 3,000 sheriff’s offices, with almost half of the agencies with 10 or fewer officers.
Smaller agencies usually have lower pay, fewer benefits and less opportunity for advancement. Many officers use small-town police departments as stepping stones to larger agencies, which causes high turnover rates and presents a lack of continuity in training and performance.
Small agencies constantly have a group of officers with minimal experience and training. Some police chiefs believe that officers need some five to seven years of experience to become competent. Bureau of Labor Statistics research data shows few employees remain this long in a single job. This loss of training and experience becomes a primary issue requiring more resources to train and supervise this type of employee. With the spate of recent retirements and those leaving law enforcement, the turnover at entry-level has increased as it has at mid-career and retirement age. This crisis shows little signs of abatement.
Some small agencies renew their efforts to recruit local individuals in hopes they will stay. Some agencies extol to “outsiders” the few benefits available to smaller agencies, such as creative scheduling, take-home vehicles allowed for personal use, benefits of rural settings such as recreational activities, and becoming “one’s own boss” after a short period as many agencies have one officer on duty. This sometimes attracts “retired officers” from larger agencies who want to work but not have the tremendous demand on their skills needed by larger agencies. The use of part-time officers is another option for some agencies.
Small agencies rarely have the monetary and fringe benefits to compete with larger agencies. Therefore, innovative thinking is required. Some chiefs have decided to accept the rapid turnover but have officers sign a two- or three-year contract. Some states mandate any agency hiring an officer post academy by a year or two must reimburse the expenses of the academy and officer salary. I know one chief who has the philosophy that he would rather have good officers for two or three years than a mediocre officer for a career and aggressively recruits uncertified applicants.
The problem: The contradictory combination of "burn out" and "rust out" rural agencies face.
Officers in rural and small agencies face “rust out” issues as the crimes they see are like other agencies but usually much fewer in number. However, intense events do occur and usually the rural officer must resolve the issue individually or with limited support, investigating the event from start to finish. This is both time-consuming and may draw on skills an officer has not developed.
Officers may become bored with the routine but find themselves involved in a critical incident which, when resolved, may take days to weeks to prepare the case, process evidence, submit evidence to the laboratory, perform follow-up investigations and prepare for court with little support.
In one small community, an officer faced negotiating a hostage release from an individual barricaded in a residence armed with a knife and homemade flamethrower. The officer initially had no support but later had a second officer provide cover during the negotiation. This case was successfully resolved with the hostage being released unharmed and the arrest of the suspect. However, this incident consumed almost a week’s worth of investigative time, including documenting the scene, obtaining warrants, collecting and then processing evidence, completing warrant fact sheets, etc. Although rare, most patrol officers in larger agencies rarely perform such duties.
Small agencies can combat the rust-out issue by allowing officers to pursue areas of law enforcement interest. One agency allows officers time off to attend any training they desire if the employee covers the cost of the travel and training. Sometimes the chief even covers their shift while they are away. This flexibility has allowed the agency to retain officers longer.
The problem: Mental health issues for rural officers are a concern as stress is high with low pay and long hours, plus the officer likely knows many of those they arrest or interact with. This is all combined with the lack of backup, which may not exist or be more than an hour away.
Long hours and boring solitude contribute to officer stress in small and rural agencies. Response times are long. Between court, overtime and other duties, time off without the chance of recall is rare. Many small agencies depend upon off-duty personnel to perform backup and recall duties for emergencies. Working a 60-hour shift with no overtime pay is not unusual.
The federal Fair Labor Standards law allows very small agencies to not pay overtime if the salary paid works out to more than minimum wage for the hours worked. Small agencies traditionally pay less money and have less equipment. In a small agency, officers interact with fewer people, and this can be both an advantage, as the person’s behaviors may be known, and a disadvantage, as the officer may have misplaced trust in the individual.
Backup in many rural or smaller agencies is not available or has a long response time. This does, however, teach the officer to improvise, negotiate and become patient during non-critical events. If the event is a critical incident, the officer is at risk of being injured or killed if no backup is available.
Allowing officers to flex their hours and swap time/shifts with other officers is usually simpler in a smaller agency where job descriptions are similar. The chief approves the changes but has little input if the shifts are covered. This ability to have fixed shifts but also the ability to swap as needed allows the officer more control over their schedule. This appeals to many.
Agencies often do not mandate residency if the officer lives within a required response time. This may prevent the officer from moving and incurring expenses. One agency has an agreement with the local housing authority to provide housing at minimal costs to officers. Some single officers use this as their residence while others use these facilities for their family until they can purchase a home.
One policy used by a small agency is to send the officers to entry-level negotiations training to allow them to more effectively communicate and de-escalate. This gives the officers more tactics than just making an arrest. If coupled with a community policing program and officer authority to act on behalf of the agency to secure resources, this provides independence and autonomy, plus more satisfaction when the officer can resolve issues themselves.
The problem: Worrying about medical emergencies when EMS is not available to assist, including officer injuries.
EMS may be like backup – nonexistent or with long wait times. This forces officers with minimal training to intervene. Some must transport the sick or injured to the hospital or a meeting point with EMS air or ground services. Officers may be the decision-maker in determining whether resuscitation is futile. In the small agency, some of these persons will be known to the officer or even relatives of the officer. This can generate tremendous stress. Plus, in the back of the officer’s mind is, "This could be me!”
Several agencies provide nationally and state certified first responder and EMT classes for officers. Many provide advanced emergency medical equipment and officer-down training courses. Programs like these teach emergency self-care, partner care and emergency medical procedures for those with no training.
The problem: Lack of resources to assist with issues involved in community policing.
Community policing is resource-intensive and requires training and time on the officer’s part to research solutions to assist in problem resolution. As with many agencies, simply finding the resource becomes the issue.
Allowing officers the unilateral authority, within policy, to negotiate solutions to problems identified by the community policing model is a good way to occupy officers’ time and provide them with independence in decision-making. Pushing decision-making to the line officer is an important retention tool as those officers with the drive to do the job well will enjoy this autonomy.
The problem: Funding issues with equipment and, in some instances, officers buying their own equipment.
Most small agencies are short of money. Officers purchasing their own equipment is not uncommon. A few officers even purchase their patrol cars with no support from the agency other than vehicle maintenance. Agencies sometimes spin this in a positive light by allowing officers to buy what they “like.” One officer had no crime scene investigative gear so spent money on acquiring what he needed to better process crime scenes.
This can be satisfying, however, if the officer purchases the equipment he or she desires – again, if such purchases fall within policy and training. One agency allows the officer to purchase and carry any model Glock pistol, 9mm or larger in caliber, as a primary weapon and any Glock, including the .380 caliber, as a secondary weapon. The agency allows, within policy, the same with duty gear. The agency also acquired at no cost through the military 1033 program M14 rifles and allows the officers to add optics and carry them along with M16s. If the officer wants to use a personal AR15 platform or shotgun with optics, he or she can do so if it meets policy and the officer qualifies with the weapon.
The problem: Areas where no radio, cellular telephone or landline telephone coverage exists.
Many rural and small agencies have limited radio coverage. Some rural areas have no cellular coverage. During Hurricane Michael, one area in southeastern Alabama lost public safety radio coverage, cellular telephone coverage and even landline telephone coverage. The scary part of the issue was this 45-square-mile area was not even missed by the regional communications center for more than 72 hours. Public safety personnel were literally isolated by downed trees and unable to communicate with the outside, let alone transport the injured or fight fires during this time.
This is a difficult issue to resolve. One agency carries two cellular telephones provided by the agency to ensure cell coverage where their 800 MHz radios do not work. Another agency negotiated access to a commercial SMR system to cover areas where the agency radio systems and cellular telephones did not work but a utility did have radio coverage.
The problem: The contradictory issue of rural officers who must not only be generalists but also must work cases from start to finish, which requires a broad range of expertise.
As cited in the above hostage situation, officers must be not only generalist patrol officers but also serve as investigators, hostage negotiators, tactical officers, crime scene technicians, provide emergency medical care, investigate motor vehicle crashes and execute court orders. The officer works a case from the crime scene to court. In some cases, the officer does this with no assistance.
Some larger agencies seem to believe that small or rural agency personnel are poorly trained, but many of the longer-serving officers in smaller agencies are well trained and have a broad background and large range of skills not possessed by officers in larger agencies.
One agency used the fact that it had world-class freshwater fishing, deer hunting and a golf course, plus an ocean with 100 miles of beach within its area of operations to recruit retired officers from larger agencies. They advertised the laid-back low call volume with a rural setting, small agency comradery, flexible shifts, take-home cars and a reasonable salary. The advertisements were posted online and in magazines that targeted golfers, boaters, hunters and bass fishers. The agency was able to obtain well-seasoned investigators, drug agents and traffic reconstruction personnel. The key is finding what assets and resources are available and using them to your agency's advantage.
The CEO of the small agency finds that they must be innovative, and use current technology and social media, to assist in resolving the issues faced. The assistance of officers with technological savvy and listening to suggestions from line personnel is essential in maintaining an agency's stability.