What a Washington Post article got wrong about small-town policing

The article discussed small town PDs in the US and the disastrous response in Uvalde as though they were related


A Washington Post article arrived in my inbox three times in two days via three different senders, with variations on the message, “Have you seen this? This is what you write about!”

It was about the (very many) small police departments in the U.S., and the disastrous response to the murders at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. If you’re confused about what those two topics have to do with each other, that’s OK. So was the writer.

He made some good points – even some I agree with, and have written about before – but he was writing about two unrelated topics as though they were related, and I’m pretty sure neither he nor his editor realized it. Rural policing isn’t a topic that’s been researched much, so that’s not unusual; in fact, a lot of what gets written and legislated about policing, in general, is written by people who don’t really understand it.

Emergency responders work at the scene in front of Santa Fe High School in response to a shooting on Friday, May 18, 2018, during which officers rapidly responded and contained a school shooter within four minutes.
Emergency responders work at the scene in front of Santa Fe High School in response to a shooting on Friday, May 18, 2018, during which officers rapidly responded and contained a school shooter within four minutes. (Kevin M. Cox /The Galveston County Daily News via AP)

So what did the writer get right?

He’s right that nearly half of the law enforcement agencies in the country have 10 or fewer officers.

He’s right that many very small departments are maintained by the will of residents who prefer “local control” to the economies of scale of unified agencies, or contracting with a sheriff’s department or state police. While that’s understandable, it’s not always an effective choice for objective, professional law enforcement, especially in places where officers have no workplace protections should they arrest the “wrong” person.

He’s right that small departments struggle to comply with training requirements, in the states that even have any requirements after academy graduation. That’s not about lack of will or ill intent. It’s just logistics and economics: training costs money, and the voting public rarely sees a tangible, measurable return on that expenditure. Training classes costs, equipment for the classes costs, and travel costs. Training takes officers off the streets, and in a small department, there’s probably no one to cover those shifts. When a chief or sheriff can find officers to cover the vacant shift, that costs, usually to the tune of time and a half.

He’s definitely right that small agencies struggle with funding. Small towns and rural places have small tax bases and famously resist tax increases. (I lived in a remote California county that repeatedly rejected increases to the transient occupancy taxes collected by hotels, not even a tax on local residents.)

He’s right that resource constraints sometimes lead to questionable hiring choices, especially in states where stringent in-person background investigations are not required by government code.

So, where does Uvalde come in? I write nearly exclusively about policing in small towns, rural and remote places, and one of my first thoughts upon reading the news from Uvalde last May was, “How does a town of 15,000 people, with a poverty rate nearly twice the national average, support both a police department and a full-scale department just for a school district?” It’s a reasonable question to ask, because it’s expensive to do law enforcement right, and doing it wrong can be worse than not doing it at all.

But is it correct to blame the size of Uvalde’s departments for the failures and deaths at that school?

No. That’s where the writer gets it wrong, and the evidence he presents to make the case is nearly all anecdotal. It makes no more sense to connect the small size of Uvalde’s police departments to their failures than it would to blame NYPD’s enormity for two friendly fire deaths in a single year. 

Further, the officers at Uvalde were not short-staffed, untrained, or alone. They had recently had active shooter response training. Backup officers from local, state and federal agencies flocked to the call, numbering nearly 400 officers before it was over. The response represented every possible level of experience, training and resources available – so, it’s still not about the size of departments. I’ll leave the tactical critique to writers who know that stuff, but any failures can’t be explained by location or numbers.

Finally, if the failures at Uvalde were a factor of budget, small size or the number of officers, we’d see that pattern repeating when violence comes to small towns. Urban centers have no monopoly on active killers, and criminal tragedy descends on small towns often enough to demonstrate that it doesn’t take numbers to make a difference. It takes motivation, drive and valor, and well-trained and appropriately equipped officers.

Such was the case in Santa Fe, Texas, in 2018, when officers rapidly responded and contained a school shooter within four minutes. The first officer on scene was critically wounded, but survived, and the killing stopped as soon as officers arrived. Santa Fe is even smaller than Uvalde, with only 13,326 residents.

It was the case the year before too, in Aztec, New Mexico, when a school shooter opened fire at a high school in the Four Corners area. A custodian called 911 just after the shooter arrived at 8:04 a.m.; police were on scene at 8:07, and the shooter chose to end his own life rather than face them. Aztec is a rural community still smaller than Santa Fe, at just over 6,000 residents.

Before that in 2009, a 25-year-old officer moved to the gunfire in a Carthage, North Carolina, nursing home, and ended an active killer all alone, the way he’d been trained. He too was wounded in the gun battle, but survived, yet another example of small town officers responding to threats well and honorably. Carthage is the smallest village yet, with only 2,500 citizens.

Small-town officers face dozens of challenges that urban officers don’t: remoteness, distance from backup and medical care, unreliable communications, lack of access to childcare and housing, and often embarrassingly low pay scales. The scattered, hyperlocal nature of city and county governments makes it hard to consolidate, hard to implement change and hard to be consistent. The big city writer who addressed these concerns wasn’t wrong about that. Someday those issues will have to be addressed, and fixed as best we can; both calls for reform and the inevitability of progress will force the issue.

Nevertheless, small-town officers repeatedly and dependably rise to the challenge of facing down violence in their communities. The catastrophe in Uvalde didn’t change that: It demonstrates how really rare that failure is. 

LISTEN: Kathleen Dias on the threats facing rural officers in 2022

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