How supported do rural officers feel? Interpreting the data from Police1’s State of the Industry survey
What rural cops want isn’t complicated or exotic. Over and over survey respondents repeated the same refrains
Police1’s second annual State of the Industry survey asked officers how supported they feel by their leadership and community. For the officers I write about, the surprises aren’t the (very real) differences, but how similar many of the responses were to those of urban officers.
First, the basic demographics: most respondents are men (most cops are men, so that’s to be expected), and most are veteran officers with 10 years or more experience. Of the more than 2,700 respondents, 22% identified themselves as rural officers. Twenty-two percent might seem to leave rural officers underrepresented since a very large number of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have 10 or fewer officers. However, the imbalance is partially explained by the extreme density of officers in urban departments: the largest 5% of departments employ 62% of the nation’s officers. Urban officers are simply easier to find, and easier to reach.
“Rural” describes where an officer works rather than a kind or size of agency. The largest group (49%) of rural respondents work for sheriff’s departments and another 26% for municipalities. The remaining quarter work for assorted state, federal and other agencies. While some of the “other” departments are small (about 32% have 24 employees or less), the rest employ relatively large numbers of officers who work scattered throughout rural or remote patrol areas.
Age and gender breakdowns were nearly identical, whether urban or rural. In all categories, the percentage of responding officers who are military veterans ranged from 25% to 30%. An emphatic 70% of all survey respondents chose “To help people” as the number one reason for choosing the law enforcement profession.
So where did they differ? One quirky detail illustrated a divide between rural officers and their peers in more populated places: asked what methods their agencies used to communicate with line officers, less than a quarter of rural officers answered “roll call,” compared to those in suburban/urban departments, who reported a solid 50%. Why? Because officers who work in small departments, or even large ones with remote patrol assignments, just don’t have roll call. When only one deputy is working at a time, or one game warden is patrolling a district out of a home office, information is passed electronically. Rural officers reported the use of text-based communications within the department at more than twice the rate of urban officers. When information is passed in person in rural departments, it’s as likely to be a conversation in a hallway or parking lot as a traditional briefing.
Some of the other differences were positives for rural officers. Asked how satisfied they are with their career choice overall, on a scale of 1 to 10, rural officers who reported a level of satisfaction beyond the neutral (5) totaled a whopping 73%, a solid 10% higher than urban officers.
Rural officers also reported much more confidence in their leadership’s support of them, compared to suburban and especially urban officers. Asked if their leadership is supportive of officers when talking to media, rural officers who agreed or strongly agreed totaled 51%. It’s not a sweeping endorsement, but it’s nearly 20% higher than the urban officers who reported that level of support.
Asked to evaluate the statement “My agency puts officer concerns above public perception,” rural officers who agreed or strongly agreed totaled 37%, compared to urban officers at 18%. Those who strongly disagreed flipped those numbers: rural officers at 18% to urban officers at 35%.
The pattern held when rural officers responded to the statement “Over the past year, I believe my agency’s top leader has been supportive of patrol officers,” answering “yes” at a rate of 61%. The rate from suburban officers fell to 51%, then took another tumble with urban officers answering “yes” at only 40%. More than 60% of rural officers also agreed that their bosses advocated for funding, programs and equipment that prioritize officer safety, with only 6% strongly disagreeing. In comparison, only 45% of urban officers felt similarly supported, while 14% emphatically did not.
Rural officers also reported greater confidence that citizens in their community understand what police do, and fewer problems than urban or suburban officers with verbal abuse or intrusive filming by bystanders.
So then, is everything perfectly peachy in the land of rural law enforcement?
All officers no matter where they worked reported a pronounced decrease in morale over the year before. The decrease in rural areas was lower, but still substantial and concerning at 68%. Rural officers were no more likely than any others to report that everyone in their agency is treated fairly by supervisors: about 50% said they are, but 30% said no. Three in ten is more than enough disaffection to adversely affect department operations, and rural officers were significantly less likely than their urban peers to have access to peer counselors or EAPs who are trained for work with law enforcement.
What rural cops want isn’t anything complicated or exotic. Over and over survey respondents repeated the same refrains:
- We want to be heard by our bosses.
- We want consistency, fairness and communication.
- We want bosses who lead by example.
- We want them to stand up for us, with the public and with the decision-makers who control budgets and policies.
Are there solutions? Can rural officers actually get what they want and need to remain productive in a field growing more fraught with each year? What can line supervisors and department heads do, realistically?
Most improvements don’t cost much. The ones that do pay off in better retention, recruitment and productivity.
First, be there. Show up for work every day, and wear your uniform, with your vest. Get out of the office; bonus for getting in a patrol car and pulling a shift on your own or doubled up with someone different each time.
Second, talk to your people - not just the supervisors but the folks on the line. Ask them what’s going on and what they think about it. Be real; everyone can tell if you’re not. If you never talk with them, you’ll never notice pending problems till it’s too late, and who wants to be the boss who’s blindsided by the train everyone else saw coming?
Third, evaluate yourself and your practices with brutal honesty. As a boss, your ethics and integrity are on public display every minute of every day. Officers notice when work assignments, training opportunities and “the good equipment” always go to favorites and it’s a morale wrecker. Don’t fall into the small town cliche of hiring friends and family and then promoting them based on feelings rather than qualifications. The good ol’ boy is a negative stereotype for a reason.
And stick up for your people - to the public, to the press, to local administrative types. When criticism is unfair and information is incorrect, fix that mess. Do it publicly and politely and without apology.
Now for the fixes that cost - some a little, some a lot.
Your officers want up-to-date vests that fit and patrol vehicles that are safe. Find a grant. Leverage a guilt trip in the next county commissioner meeting; come prepared with cost/benefit analysis between the equipment and work comp. Talk about liability. Talk about moral obligations. Have a bake sale if you have to; your officers will notice and it will make a difference.
Your officers want training and equipment that preserve and improve their health: physical, mental and emotional. Find a way to get them training on nutrition, gym memberships or in-house workout equipment, and paid workout time on duty.
Provide officers access to counselors who are trained in police stress and familiar with law enforcement. Figure it out; it’s 2022, not 1973, and the internet is a thing. Get on the phone and ask questions. Find out what other departments do that works, and do that too. Then, never penalize them for using those resources, or breach confidentiality. Ruin it for one officer and none of the others will ever touch it.
Your officers are tired. Long shifts, archaic scheduling, short staffing, commutes and mandatory overtime are wearing them out, blunting their reflexes and interfering with good decision-making. If you can’t add more officers, then research innovative shift schedules and brainstorm ways to soften the impact of long commutes. Encourage them to take their paid time off, even if you have to cover the shift. Burnout is real, and cops are quitting because of it.
And last, fight for higher pay, and benefits that protect them and their families like long and short term disability insurance, and death benefits. What do you have to lose? You’re the boss. The worst that can happen is nothing, but if you approach the issue the way you build a court case, eventually change will come. You have to value your officers first before anyone else will.
Fight for them, and they’ll run through walls with you.