Giving a voice to the silent majority: Rural police leaders share challenges ahead
Out of a series of conversations between the feds and rural cops comes a report detailing the dire issues facing those who police small-town America
A new report published by the National Police Foundation details the results of five “listening sessions” with the leadership of rural law enforcement agencies in five states. The report is available in full below.
Representatives from BJA and COPS met with department heads and command staff from small and rural departments in South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Montana and Utah to hear their concerns and learn more about the needs specific to their missions.
The report acknowledges that rural law enforcement has been largely left out of past conversations even though rural police serve a population totaling 46 million residents – or about triple the combined populations of New York City plus Los Angeles. In addition, rural crime rates, including violent crime, continue to rise even as police staffing levels fall.
RESOURCES ARE STRAINED
In every meeting, police leaders from rural America stressed a single point above all others: lack of funding is breaking them.
The report described the lack of funds as a “self-reinforcing problem” influencing everything from staffing to the use of technology. It contributes to failing physical assets like jails and hampers participation in state-mandated rehabilitation or mental health programs for inmates.
Departments that are not funded appropriately cannot recruit quality applicants and keep them; short-staffing means officers cannot access training because there’s no one to cover their shifts during the class.
While states debate requiring all officers to use body-worn cameras, rural agencies that manage to begin a BWC program often end up abandoning them because the costs for maintenance and data storage are beyond their reach.
Rural communities face obstacles to funding development that urban ones never have to consider. A major issue in western states is the thousands of square miles of public lands – wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, parks and national forests – unavailable to local property tax rolls. Federal payments in lieu of taxes are chronically in arrears or are inadequate to compensate for lost taxes.
GRANTS ARE NOT A CURE-ALL
Grants are commonly regarded as a fix for intractable financial problems, but input from the rural department heads who attended the listening sessions indicates this assumption is incorrect. Multiple barriers to successful access and use of grant funds were described.
The first was the simple lack of resources to find and write grants. As one Iowa participant explained, a single grant application can take as much as 40 hours to complete; in a department that’s already strapped, that’s not inconvenient, it’s overwhelming.
Many participants described the application process and reporting requirements as difficult to follow, often requiring information that simply doesn’t apply in their situations.
Another barrier is restrictions on use. For example, when available grants require that funding be used only for a dedicated position that doesn’t already exist (a school resource officer or K-9 handler), this ignores the fact that there are few, if any, specialists in rural departments. Staffing constraints demand flexibility.
The adage that “it takes money to make money” is reinforced by grant requirements for funding or in-kind matches. Agencies that can’t afford to match funds will usually choose not to apply at all rather than “waste” valuable work hours pursuing funding they believe they won’t get.
Short funding cycles and requirements to maintain grant-funded positions beyond the life of the grant were also cited as impediments.
Participants asked for access to training and technical assistance, as well as help with finding sources of funding.
IMPACT OF DRUG USE AND MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS
No matter what state they were from, every department has been impacted by disproportionately high levels of drug use in their areas compared with urban settings.
Leadership cited a rise in the use of high-grade methamphetamine, sometimes combined with fentanyl, at a time when more and more prosecutors are declining to prosecute drug offenses. This has led to a disconnect between law enforcement and the rest of the criminal justice system, as officers see repeat offenders released into the community seemingly without consequence.
Many participants also described rising levels of drug trafficking from the nation’s southern border. The highways and interstates used to channel drugs, weapons and crime to the rest of the US are in large part routed through rural areas.
Police chiefs and sheriffs told of cartels joining with local gangs and providing them with better equipment and more personnel than rural police can bring to bear in the fight against the effects on their communities.
In addition, the report detailed a growing concern that rural agencies are unable to cope with their role as de facto mental health providers. A Utah sheriff told the panel that in the entire southern region of his state as few as six mental health beds may be available. Because of that shortfall, he has had to hold in-custodies in his jail for months when they had been detained primarily for mental health concerns rather than a crime.
Lastly, all participants reported difficulty in establishing and maintaining relationships with federal and state agencies, including those responsible for enforcing the law on tribal lands.
This frustrates rural law enforcement because federal crimes are not being prosecuted at federal levels since there are no stakeholders responsible for and active in their areas.
The report concluded by emphasizing the critical need to increase support for rural agencies and their officers, who have historically been required to do more and more with less.
The BJA and COPS Office have already begun their response to these listening sessions by streamlining and simplifying grant processes and earmarking funds specifically for rural and small agencies.
They have altered their marketing to better broadcast information about resources available for rural law enforcement and, in addition, COPS has expanded the scope of the program to gather input from more states.
When the report from the listening sessions including Texas, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico is released, it will be summarized here as well.