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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

September 2019 | Volume 12 | Issue 8

When many Americans think of police departments, they envision big agencies with large numbers of detectives, forensic specialists, and SWAT teams at the ready. But about half of our law enforcement departments have fewer than 10 officers, according to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics,1 and approximately 70 percent of them serve communities of fewer than 10,000.2

These small, usually rural, communities have the same problems that their counterparts in metropolitan areas have, including substance abuse, violent crime, and homelessness. But small towns have small tax bases, which results in less funding for personnel, training, equipment, technology and other resources that local, state, and tribal law enforcement need to prevent crime and maintain public safety.

Listening Sessions and Discussions in Five States

To help them acquire the support they need, the COPS Office partnered with the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), and the National Police Foundation to conduct listening sessions with rural law enforcement leaders. During the spring and summer of 2019, they held these meetings with representatives of police departments and sheriffs’ offices in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, Iowa, and Montana.

The purpose was to hear personally about the challenges rural law enforcement departments face, identify and assess their most pressing needs, and advise them about procedural innovations and promising practices that could work in their communities.

Critical Challenges Need to be Addressed

In meetings attended by as many as 90 law enforcement professionals, a wide variety of challenges were discussed, including the following:

  • The increase of opioid and methamphetamine related suffering and crime
  • Recruitment problems of competing with urban police department salaries
  • Lack of staffing for joint efforts such as highway drug interdiction teams
  • Expense of body worn cameras, mobile computers, and license plate readers
  • Lack of resources for dealing with mental health issues
  • The strain on small staffs of processing emergency detention orders (EDO)
  • Time consumption and other difficulties of applying for grant funding
  • Additional technology needed for forensic investigations

These sessions also served as opportunities to provide information about existing resources that could support rural law enforcement, including federal grant funding opportunities, online resources, and ongoing DOJ technical assistance programs.

COPS Office Director Phil Keith described a successful regional law enforcement program in Texas, where an eight-county drug interdiction team was formed, and noted that training and technical assistance can be provided for agencies interested in developing a similar program.

Solutions and Opportunities from Government and the Field

Along with each state’s U.S. Attorney, representatives from the COPS Office and BJA engaged with the local law enforcement leaders to identify methods for meeting the challenges they discussed. These included local grass roots solutions as well as existing federal programs, such as these:

  • Grant money from the National Highways Transportation Safety Board for addressing traffic safety and crime
  • Use of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) and electronic fingerprinting equipment to respond to firearms crimes
  • Information sharing on close calls and lessons learned with fellow law enforcement officers through the National Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence and the LEO Near Miss programs
  • School safety grants, a bulletproof vest program, and other funding support from the COPS Office and BJA
  • The use of drones by some departments to relieve some staffing needs by performing search and rescue and other duties
  • Cost-free training from the U.S. Secret Service for crime scene searches, evidence collection, and processing
  • The Project Safe Neighborhoods program for law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and community leaders to identify and develop solutions for violent crime problems
  • Streamlined COPS Office grants for innovative projects with one page applications and fast approval process
  • The VALOR Initiative for no-cost officer safety and wellness training
  • The Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center (CRITAC), which provides training and technical assistance through a partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

These are just a few of the many topics discussed at the listening sessions. Much more needs to be heard—and done. As Director Keith noted, the nation’s small and rural law enforcement deserve greater attention and support from the federal government.

An Ongoing Effort with Additional Forums and Support

To that end, the group plans to conduct additional rural policing forums in Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, and North Dakota. For more information on these forums, please email Tawana Elliott. The information gathered during these listening sessions will be used to develop a report that will be provided to the field.

As Jon Adler, Director of BJA, said in addressing one of the meetings, the BJA and the nation’s U.S. Attorneys have the back of local law enforcement. This guarantee was seconded by Director Keith for the COPS Office, and both men noted that their offices are available to assist all agencies with their law enforcement issues.

Faye Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer

1. Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015), 1,
2. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2013 (see note 1), 3.

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