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Why rural agencies face the most challenges from police reform

Some of the reforms being proposed nationwide seem more like fantasy than realistic goals for rural law enforcement


If every officer in every state will eventually have to comply with more uniform statewide standards, then begin figuring out what that will require of your state.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

While the most strident calls for police reform are coming from urban areas and Washington DC, changes are being proposed for all agencies and all officers. Rural agencies will bear a disproportionately difficult burden in meeting new standards without aid, and without some alterations to long-accepted ways of doing business.

How our patchwork approach to policing hinders change

Politicians and activists refer to “the police” when they criticize. The problem is that, especially in rural America, “the police” isn’t a single recognized profession, like “teachers” or “nurses.” Instead, law enforcement in the US is a state-by-state patchwork of full time, part-time and volunteer officers with widely varying levels of training and authority.

While some states (California is one) have a single statewide standard for law enforcement certification, in many others standards are set by each locality or even agency. In those states, large, well-funded urban agencies may have their own academies and relatively rigorous training and hiring requirements, while the rest figure it out one hire at a time. This inconsistency makes it difficult to conform to new standards and it will expose agencies that miss the mark to increased scrutiny and liability.

For example, how will small, underfunded agencies apply new uniform use of force training standards in states where new hires are allowed to patrol for weeks or months before ever attending the academy?That’s possible in more states than you’d think – Oklahoma, Wyoming, Indiana and Montana among them. In January of this year, South Carolina was abruptly reminded of this lapse when a young officer patrolling alone was shot and killed. He was scheduled to attend the academy in a few weeks. Now the state is reconsidering its policy.

But what if that officer had defended himself successfully? If his lack of training meant he was not in compliance with new standards, who would bear responsibility for his actions? After all, the first question by any lawyer in a wrongful death suit is, “Let me see your training records.” If the answer is to prohibit uncertified officers from patrolling nationwide, then access to academies will have to be broadened.

What becomes of the many small agencies that are highly dependent on volunteers, some of them very well trained (Texas, and California again), some utterly untrained. Will the new standards be required of volunteer reserves?

How about the states that still have constables? In Texas, a constable is fully trained, certified and sworn. In Kentucky and Massachusetts, there are no training requirements at all for constables; it’s an elected position, funded by the fees collected for the court services provided. Will constables even be classified as law enforcement if they’re not trained? If they are, won’t they have to meet the standard as well?

No one is answering those questions right now, mostly because the people clamoring for change don’t understand the field well enough to know they should ask.

If the answer is yes, all persons with police powers must conform to nationwide – or even statewide – training standards, then hard decisions will have to be made about the time and funding needed to achieve that level of training. If it’s a stretch in urban settings, it’s going to be out of reach entirely in many rural ones.

Besides training, reform demands include tying grants to compliance with new training and reporting standards. Rural agencies report multiple obstacles to obtaining grant funding as it is; adding to the complexity will only complicate their hunt for scarce dollars.

Adding “co-responders” to police response when calls involve homelessness, mental health concerns or addiction is recommended in the executive order issued by President Trump. Police, in general, are overwhelmed by calls for non-criminal issues for which they are neither suited nor trained, and would likely welcome additional resources. Cities that use this model generally regard it as a success. Nevertheless, implementing such a program in rural places where mental health care is nonexistent is more fantasy than a realistic goal. If it’s required, and unachievable, then what?

All these questions lead us to several considerations, none of them simple. Change never is, but it’s not inherently bad, either.

Statewide, not federal standards

First, I’ll acknowledge that no state wants sweeping federal standards imposed on its law enforcement.

There’s one sure way to avoid that: impose strong, clearly codified statewide standards instead, the way each state already certifies lawyers, nurses and teachers.

This method has the added advantage of simplifying hiring between agencies within the same state, secure in the knowledge that any officer already working is also already trained to a recognizable standard.

No exemptions

Next, let’s consider and then quickly reject the idea of exempting agencies below a certain number of officers from training and hiring standards. This is tempting because of the cost savings, but it would create an unacceptable caste system within the law enforcement profession, effectively sentencing small and rural communities to second class public safety and dooming the officers working for them to a substandard career.

The idea of reform is to improve the situation of everyone involved, not just to manufacture a different set of poorly served citizens.

Streamlining access to training

Lastly, if every officer in every state will eventually have to comply with more uniform statewide standards, then begin figuring out what that will require of your state.

At a minimum, this will mean streamlining access to police academies and removing barriers to grants and other funding streams. Rather than requiring all trainees to be sponsored by a department, imposing the full (often prohibitive) cost on small agencies, or every agency having its own academy, police training could become part of the community college system. Students could attend as part of an associate degree or trade certification.

In that case, whether the school was a residential or commuter program, trainees would be able to access traditional financial aid or use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to cover the cost. Then new graduates would be free to compete for any opening at an agency in the state, knowing they meet standards for a police trainee. All hiring agencies would be likewise secure in the level of training their new hire brings.

Is consolidation the answer?

Achieving training standards is one challenge. Maintaining them is next.

Piggybacking on the training of nearby larger agencies is one way to access training, but it doesn’t solve the problem of covering shifts while officers attend the classes.

There are hundreds of agencies in the US with 10 officers or less, and that level of staffing makes accessing training difficult in the extreme. Budgets are tight and there is no slack in schedules. It may be time to admit that hyper-local control isn’t always the only choice. Consolidating some very small agencies can provide better coverage and also a more efficient use of the available tax bases.

Look at it this way: Idaho has 44 counties with 44 sheriffs, in a state covering more than 83,000 square miles. Kentucky by comparison has 120 sheriffs in a state less than half the size. That’s cutting the revenue pie up in a lot of very small pieces, especially when you factor in the existence of police departments and state police as well. Is it really necessary to have multiple small police departments and a sheriff’s office, in the space of a few dozen miles? Why not join forces with neighboring towns instead, deepen the bench and share expenses?

Some reforms for police training and standards are necessary and becoming unavoidable. When it happens, it’s going to be messy and it’s going to be hard. Getting ahead of the change and taking control of it is always preferable to that of being dragged in its wake.

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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.