Policing Mayberry: Misconceptions about 'rural' cops

Television often portrays a rural lifestyle similar to that found on the Andy Griffith Mayberry RFD television series

Though the majority – some estimates say 80% – of the population of the United States live in urban or suburban areas, small towns remain a choice among nearly 45 million people.

Jobs, family, lifestyle, low population density, a desire to live outside the urban cluster, an interest in raising children in what may be perceived as a community less vulnerable to the ravages of gangs and drugs, or the freedom to “cling to ... guns or religion...” have drawn many to small, rural communities.

Many of these small communities – though the definition of “rural” remains as diverse as the organizations trying to capture the numbers – have organizations that serve the public’s law enforcement needs.

The officers, deputies, and troopers – from village cops to and wildlife/conversation officers to state patrolmen – who work in these areas labor under the wrongheaded stereotypes of popular culture. Television often portrays a rural lifestyle similar to that found on The Andy Griffith Show, and the officers as quaint characters indistinguishable from either Andy or Barney. The grittier and purportedly more realistic dramas are saved for urban crime stories.

Over the next 25 years urban expansion, coupled with local financial concerns, could result in the gradual loss of some small community police departments through elimination or amalgamation with regional or state agencies.

Despite the population and resource pressures that will further the pace of urbanization, small rural community policing will remain an important part of our national fabric for the foreseeable future. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics

  • Roughly 75% of police departments serve communities of less than 10,000. They employ 14% of the nation’s 765,000 sworn officers, or a little over 100,000 officers;
  • In 2004, 45% of departments had fewer than 10 officers. By 2008 that percentage increased to 53%, employing 6% of the total officers nationwide;
  • Of the 12,501 police departments nationwide, 11,048 agencies with 49 or fewer officers account for 123,614 officers.

Sheriff’s offices show similar numbers. In 2008, approximately 2,358 departments had fewer than 49 deputies each, employing a total of 39,033 sworn deputies, approximately 21% of the nationwide number.

Many of these smaller communities (and large ones too, apparently) have looked toward decreasing or even eliminating some police services as a way to cut costs. One recent example of the latter is the southern Virginia town of Halifax, where roughly one-third of the town’s $900,000 budget is consumed by law enforcement expenses.

Some politicians may not appreciate the services their local police force provides. One Halifax councilman, Jack Dunavant, is probably not alone when he expressed a demeaning attitude toward his town’s police. He recently told the press: "I think our police department is somewhat redundant at this point. They help old ladies and if somebody falls and that sort of thing. But we've got a stoplight so you don't have to direct traffic anymore."

While some small communities such as Halifax may be looking to decrease their law enforcement expenditures criminals have continued to act out regardless of community size.

In the 1990s it was a common belief that rural crime was less frequent and less violent than in urban areas. Recently released FBI data tells a slightly different story. The statistics suggest that the well-publicized national drop in crime rates has not been uniform across communities. Small communities (25,000 and less) have seen a more modest decrease (with the exception of forcible rape) than many larger communities.

What’s most striking is that communities with a population of 10,000 to 24,999 have seen their murder rates increase 9.2% while communities of under 10,000 have seen a whopping 18.3% increase. In other words, as Joseph F. Donnemeyer of the Ohio State University has recognized, though “rural areas today have less crime than their urban counterparts, they also have more crime than they did in the past, and their crime problems are serious.” An increase in gangs and illegal drug use are just two of the challenges facing rural law enforcement departments.

What’s even more alarming is that officer deaths in communities of 10,000 or less are high, second only to those in large urban centers. This mirrors similar date from 1988 to 1997 where the rate of officers killed in rural areas was greater than that for large urban enclaves.

Rural and urban policing are clearly different and often urban solutions are shoehorned efforts to solve rural crime problems. Newly minted, small-town police chiefs, some of whom have come from metro areas, are recognizing the diversity and distinct and unexpected challenges in rural policing. As they have discovered, officers and deputies working in isolated, rural environments often encounter their own unique problems, to include:

  • The lack of immediately available backup officers;
  • Encountering friends, relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors at crime scenes as victims, suspects, and witnesses;
  • Limited peer interaction;
  • Comparatively lower pay than their urban counterparts;
  • Longer periods of inactivity.

However, there are also distinct advantages to working in a smaller, rural department. With fewer calls for service, officers have time to act on crime prevention and more thoroughly investigate the crimes that do occur. Though officers probably respond to more than their fair share of barking dog and civil complaints, these contacts allow them to hone interpersonal skills and develop relationships that may prove useful in the future. Though the number of patrol officers vice investigators/detectives is not readily available, it would be safe to conclude that in many smaller jurisdictions patrol officers perform, from time to time, investigative duties that look more like detective work. 

The loss of any of these small-town departments is an unfortunate result of political paralysis and a sign of our economic times. The officers and deputies that work in these communities often face and resolve problems that are not present in larger urban areas. This does not make them any less of a professional but does set them apart in a field increasingly crowded by large urban and suburban departments.

Rural policing is no longer Mayberry, and maybe it never was.

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