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Small, rural and tribal police chiefs want a seat at the table. This association aims to achieve that

While the Small and Rural Law Enforcement Executive Association is the new kid on the block, its ranks are building fast

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Small, rural and tribal police chiefs want a seat at the table where decisions are made, money is disbursed and policies are established.

COPS Office

“I never in my life thought I could access this kind of training,” said a rural deputy in a note sent to John Thompson, the vice president of SRLEEA (Small and Rural Law Enforcement Executive Association).

That note, Thompson said, is what the nonprofit association had in mind when it was established – providing no-cost training and grants help, and a political voice to departments too small or too remote to access them on their own.

Small, rural and tribal police chiefs want a seat at the table where decisions are made, money is disbursed and policies are established. Until now, that table has been dominated by big associations filled mostly with representatives from big law enforcement agencies: IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police), PERF (Police Executive Research Forum), NSA (National Sheriff’s Association) and NOBLE (National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives). SRLEEA, the new kid on the block, is already more than 6,000 members strong, and its leadership intends to change that dynamic.

Because there is power in numbers, SRLEEA is focusing on outreach to maximize its rolls. Membership is free and open to all law enforcement employees and many others, and already includes some 3,000 police chiefs and 800 sheriffs.

Same problems, smaller tax bases

For this article, I spoke by phone with several of the organization’s leadership, among them Sheriff Vanessa Crawford from Petersburg, Virginia, who has spent her career blazing trails. She starts her fifth term as sheriff this winter, and one of her major goals is growing SRLEEA’s influence. She is in an excellent position to do so as its vice chair of the Board of Governors, with a long list of local, state and national honors and credentials besides.

“I hope SRLEEA can bring to light how small, rural and tribal agencies are in need of the same things large agencies need. They have the same problems, but they have smaller tax bases and are underrepresented because of their size,” Crawford said. “We are engaging people all over the country, building structure, offering high-quality training virtually, at no cost. One goal is to make sure people realize that ‘free’ doesn’t mean ‘less impactful.’ SRLEEA is a resource to make sure small agencies are heard and seen.”

I asked her for an example of obstacles faced by small departments that don’t affect large ones. “Grants,” she said. “Not just writing them, but finding match funding for them, and then convincing small jurisdictions not to cut budgets proportionally when they’re awarded.” Pay scales, of course, are always a problem for small departments, competing with larger, wealthier ones for the same applicants.

Her concerns were echoed by Sheriff Bill Brueggemann of Cass County, Nebraska. Nearing retirement, Brueggemann presides over a staff of 34 to run the jail, secure the courts, patrol more than 500 square miles and keep the peace of the county’s 26,000 residents. He’s been sheriff since 1991, bringing decades of experience to SRLEEA’s Board of Governors.

“Grant access is nearly impossible for small departments. They can’t write them. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the experience to write them, they can’t match the funds. Or maybe they only need a few of whatever the grant is for, so they can’t compete with bigger agencies; most of the funding for COPS grants went to large agencies. There’s a definite need for representation for the smaller ones,” Brueggemann said. “Fifty or less seems to be the common concept for a small department; some legislators have really unrealistic ideas.”

Brueggemann has a point. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics quoted on SRLEEA’s website, nine out of ten law enforcement agencies have fewer than 50 officers. More than half have only ten, or less. That perspective, and disappointing experiences with committees for small departments in the larger and older associations, drove his involvement with this young one.

“It’s like the big law enforcement agencies own the restaurant and we’re just mopping the floor,” Brueggemann said. “I appreciate the big agencies; they do a lot for us. But I’m disappointed with our government.” He told me of struggles he’s witnessed, and the innovation he’s seen to overcome them, like the deputy who rigged a home surveillance camera with an inverter to improvise a dash camera.

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “I got involved with committees dedicated to tribal policing, and it just made me mad. Why weren’t we doing more for these officers? Why are they just now gaining access to criminal histories and such? They’re dealing with high levels of sexual assaults, violence, trafficking, but they have no resources.”

Finally, he believes, needed changes are happening.

“We’re starting to get a seat at the table with the people who hold the purse strings in DC,” he said. “They’re noticing us. I think we (SRLEEA) will be the biggest association in the U.S. someday.”

A missing voice at the federal level

Chief Torin Misko of Hartland, Wisconsin, was sought out by SRLEEA and chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee. A self-professed “legislative nerd,” he left a large sheriff’s office in 2018 to lead a police department with 18 sworn officers in a town of nearly 10,000 residents. It’s small, but not rural: in the suburbs, he has big city problems but small town resources.

“Small departments are not well represented by large organizations, they’re crowded out. There are small police department sections, but they’re all but invisible. Our voice at the federal level was missing. SRLEEA represents that voice of small agencies doing professional work, “ Misko said.

“We’re finding issues that benefit us all, more common ground than anything. We’re still working to build education and influence. We want to become like PERF, like IACP, to have a seat at that table. When issues like qualified immunity come before Congress, it’s a big deal for us in small towns. Everyone making the laws just assumes every department has a bunch of lawyers and resources to deal with lawsuits, and things like that. We don’t. It’s just us. One case could implode an entire department, even a town. So, we put together a package of information on the topic from a small department perspective, and sent it to the senators sponsoring the bill.”

Misko knows that working in smaller towns doesn’t insulate leadership or line officers from the bleak realities of policing. “The worst day of my life was getting the call that my officer got shot,” he said. The officer sustained life-altering, potentially career-ending wounds in the 2020 incident, and one officer out of 18 is a significant hit to staffing. When Misko speaks to legislators about the real world in which small departments struggle, he’s speaking from experience.

“We want to continue to lobby, and to advocate,” Misko said. “We want to be on the same phone call as the older organizations, the major departments.”

Common goals and creative thinking

Sheriff Kim Stewart of Dona Ana County, New Mexico, was almost excluded from leadership in SRLEEA: her county and department are just too big, with 155 uniformed staff in a county of more than 200,000 residents. She persisted and now serves on its Board of Governors.

Yes, she told John Thompson when she applied, her county is a big one, with a big-city feel to its county seat. Nevertheless, that population is spread out over nearly 4,000 square miles ( like Delaware and Connecticut together,” she said), with a long international border to the south. The day before we talked, one of her investigators drove for more than 7 hours to access a remote crime scene. “Small” is about population; “rural” is about location.

“SRLEEA is collaborative, team-oriented, working toward a big-picture view of issues affecting a huge percentage of U.S. law enforcement,” Stewart told me. “We have disparate backgrounds and political views, yet we work together.“

Stewart described past experiences with organizations and agencies being possessive about information, and prioritizing local control to the point of resisting mutual aid agreements. In SRLEEA, she says she has found cooperation and creative thinking on nearly every topic.

“We find common goals. Among the Board of Governors, we have equal voices, equal standing, regardless of department size. Small agencies can’t do these things alone, so we’re trying to do them together, like establishing regional peer support instead of every department for itself,” Stewart said.

And for lobbying?

Stewart said, “It’s much more effective to present as a member of a 6,000-member association than to just call a legislator and say, ‘I’m sheriff of…’. Training by legislation burdens the officers in small departments without answering specifics about logistics and funding. Then it looks like the department is unwilling to support training when in reality, they’re unable to. Very few agencies nationwide would be resistant to help with training and equipment. It’s the same with legislation about body-worn cameras. If the government can’t fund the mandates they impose, then they’re part of the problem.”

All great stories are underdog stories, and SRLEEA is an association of underdogs seeking strength and influence in numbers. So what’s the ultimate goal?

“I want to see the membership continue to grow. We want to provide excellent training, a virtual conference; Zoom makes a lot of interaction possible. We’re planning our first in-person conference for 2023,” Chief Misko said. “There’s zero harm in joining whether you work for a small agency or not. There’s legislative advocacy at the federal and state level. There are great resources and easy-to-access training. Jump on our website and sign up. It’s free.”

NEXT: How the traditional guard rails of workplace safety fail rural LEOs

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.