The problem of 'distance from assistance': How a lack of backup and medical care impacts rural LEOs
When it comes to managing the violence visited on rural officers, we have to refuse to accept the way things have always been done
Since 2019, I have tracked how many officers get shot in the line of duty and where it happens; it turns out that way more of those assaults than you’d expect happen in rural places.
A career law enforcement leader and fellow P1 writer reached out with feedback on my Police Week article breaking last year’s numbers down. I spent some time picking his professional brain about theories on why rural officers might be subject to such high levels of violence, and such severe casualties. (And they are severe. According to Rob Lawrence of EMS1, last year’s numbers indicated that urban officers are three times more likely to survive being shot than rural officers.)
Colonel Jim Smith, Public Safety Director in Cottonwood, Alabama, speaks from a depth of knowledge and experience. He began his law enforcement career in the 80s, with nearly 20 years in an Alabama town of more than 70,000 residents. He then coordinated safety at a university campus, while doing double duty managing a public safety department in the small town of Cottonwood. Along the way, he acquired multiple degrees, authored articles and textbooks, and still teaches classes for several universities.
We talked about the problems affecting rural officers, and ways to mitigate them. Smith broke down the issues into two basic chunks: the differences between rural and urban citizens (and criminals), and the problem of “distance from assistance” – specifically backup and sophisticated medical care.
RURAL CITIZENS (AND CRIMINALS) ARE DIFFERENT
Smith said, “I went from a staff of 160 to a staff of seven. As a rural small agency public safety director, I can understand the extensive violence against rural officers. Those living in rural areas tend to be independent and some do not want government interference in their lives. They view police as the primary government official whom they have to deal with.”
Rural communities, he further explained, tend to be made up of fiercely independent individuals, interdependent on other community members, not local government. The local deputy or police officer is part of that community.
“An officer typically will have contact with nearly everyone in a rural setting, and they have totally different demographic and societal expectations, different socialization than urban citizens,” Smith said. In other words, where individuals all know the officer, and the officer the individual, enforcement however necessary is taken personally.
Also, Smith said, “Rural residents are typically well armed with long guns, shoot frequently, know the terrain, and if so inclined, know how to execute an ambush from skills gained (from) hunting. I’ve seen deer hunters with tech that agencies can’t afford for sniper teams, eight or ten thousand dollar thermal optics on their rifles.”
Add in the fact that crime doesn’t have jurisdictional lines, and things start getting hairy. “Rural areas have all the same issues everyone else does, just in smaller quantities. I’ve worked with joint task forces, and those rural, dirt roads carry a lot of drugs,” Smith said.
THE PROBLEM WITH DISTANCE FROM ASSISTANCE
The problem is simple to define, and complex to fix. Rural officers work far from backup and usually patrol solo. Trauma centers don’t exist in rural places; EMS is usually basic, often volunteer, and also has to travel the same long distances that plague backup officers.
Smith said bluntly, “Officers have no backup. In my setting, the closest backup is 11 miles away if the officer is in town, but portions of our response area are more than 25 miles away from backup, over narrow rural roads. (Although) our agency covers 24 square miles, unofficially it covers more than 100 square miles, as the closest law enforcement agency to these areas. EMS has a facility locally, but only basic life support is available, with the nearest hospital more than an hour from some parts of our response area.”
First, Smith suggested adjustments in training style: “Urban law enforcement (methods) would be considered aggressive, impersonal, officious in a rural area. That kind of training is not germane in approach, where everyone is armed. An officer’s approach is better to be soft, not hard, where there’s no backup.”
He suggested more focus on problem-solving and communication; after all, it’s entirely likely that both the suspect and complainant are not only each others’ neighbors but the officer’s as well. That doesn't mean that being nice will keep an officer from getting hurt. It does mean that policing necessarily looks different when your kid plays Little League with the kids of all the people you’ve arrested.
Smith’s next step was to add more training preparing officers for solo response and self-rescue. That meant more training with firearms and less lethal options like TASERs and beanbag shotguns and in physical combat. His agency ensured every officer is certified in tactical medicine, with some cross-trained as EMTs and paramedics. Local EMS providers were also trained in tactical medicine, and to coordinate with helicopter response for rapid transportation of injured officers.
Firearms training got creative, adding night shoots and varying the weather and light conditions. “Annual qualifications and occasional practice aren’t enough,” Smith said. “Four times a year is the minimum, in combat settings, not just shooting at paper targets.”
Then he addressed the matter of equipping rural officers properly. That means basics like ballistic vests, of course, but also enhanced body armor, ballistic shields and helmets, and adding high-end thermal imaging monoculars to the helmets. In keeping with the tacmed training, all officers carry IFAKs with a tourniquet and battle dressing. Smith’s officers are issued shotguns, but also an M4 style rifle with optics; some qualified officers carry designated sniper rifles with thermal imaging. In departments too small for specialized units, every officer must be prepared and trained to respond as needed. One day they may be the on-scene medic; the next, they may be the entire available SWAT unit.
Improvements for small and rural departments are often resisted by decision-makers, usually because of the cost. I asked Smith for his ideas on overcoming these objections.
“The method I have used is an educational one,” Smith said. “I have convinced individuals to perform ridealongs, shown them videos of recent officer-involved events, and presented data. Essentially (I) lobbied to convince them of the need for the equipment or training. My method includes using the ethos, pathos and logos approach, in an incremental fashion. One may not be successful, but persistence is a necessity.” In other words, Smith approached the problem as if it were a classical debate: he anticipated objections and prepared both arguments and evidence to counter them.
“As a fallback when other methods fail,” Smith said, “is the use of public and media influence.” Public pressure can be effective leverage, but it can also deepen an adversarial relationship.
Creativity and perseverance matter. Smith demonstrated that adding thermal imaging to their officers’ toolbox decreased officer assaults and increased SAR successes, including the harrowing search for victims after nighttime traffic wrecks on dark rural roads. Those successes and the associated cost savings make administrators more willing to try other new tools; now his agency is working on a drone program.
When ammunition costs started to pinch firearms training, they substituted airsoft guns, allowing officers to continue to practice tactics. “You can really use your imagination,” Smith said. “We even made booby traps with those things. And they cost a lot less to shoot so we can do more of it.” Borrowing trainers from other agencies saved on instructor training for his own; building relationships costs little and benefits both agencies.
He emphasized finding novel resources for funding and equipment. Grants are available not only from government sources but also from local nonprofits and private businesses. (Smith also recommended adding language in grant applications to preclude grant monies from supplanting existing budget funds.) “The key is to have data,” Smith said. “To write a grant, one needs data and to demonstrate a need. We keep several ‘canned’ grant materials readily available, should grant money be found.”
The 1033 Program has long been a law enforcement workhorse, providing everything from surplus uniforms to printer paper, but Walmart also fed Cottonwood’s K-9s for a year. Then Smith asked PetSmart to take over for the next year, and they did. “Just ask,” he said. “And keep looking.”
One of the most remarkable things about my discussion with Smith about managing the violence visited on rural officers is his refusal to accept the way things have always been done.
Law enforcement is inherently risky and confrontational. It’s impossible to extinguish risk from the realm of rural law enforcement, but improvement is always possible.
Be creative. Be stubborn. Be prepared to hear "no" and also be prepared to counter it with well-documented data and persuasion. If rural law enforcement is worth doing, then it is worth doing right. Your officers, and your community, deserve that.