While it is common to think of America as an urban society, significant parts of the country remain outside major cities. About 70% of the land in America and about 20% of America’s population is in nonmetropolitan counties—counties with fewer than fifty thousand people that are not adjacent to and economically dependent on large urban areas. In America, most people live in urban areas, but most places are rural. Further, the rural population of the United States is larger than the population of blacks or of Hispanics. It is greater than the population of Canada, Spain, Columbia, or Australia, and about the same as the population of France or Germany.

The image of rural life as crime free is largely a myth. While it is true that overall crime is lower in rural areas, the rates of drug use and domestic violence are about the same in rural and urban areas. Further, there are pockets of rural America with very high crime rates. For example, of the thirty counties in the United States with the highest homicide rates, nineteen are nonmetropolitan and eleven of these are so sparsely populated that they have no community of 2,500 or more. Thus, rural areas often have very real crime problems.

Before proceeding, a word of caution is in order. It is difficult to provide a simple description of rural police while also recognizing that rural areas and small towns vary tremendously from one part of the country to the next. Some rural communities have extreme levels of violent crime, whereas other rural areas have relatively little. Many nonmetropolitan counties are steeped in poverty, others are relatively wealthy. Some have very stable populations while others experience great population mobility. Parsimony demands that the current discussion focus on the typical or average rural agency, recognizing that not all rural areas are alike.

Public images of the police are largely shaped by media portrayals of large urban police agencies. Scholarly research on the police has also focused on these agencies, leaving the impression that police agencies and police work everywhere mirror that found in the largest central cities. However, real differences exist between police in rural and urban areas. First, let us consider urban-rural differences in the nature of the agencies themselves, and then turn our attention to differences in the nature of police work.

Rural and Small-Town Police Agencies

Although some police agencies operate within rural areas, they are not truly of those areas, and their impact is relatively small. These include the state police, state and federal conservation agents, park rangers, and numerous other state and federal agencies. These agencies may operate in rural areas and small towns, but they are accountable to their parent agency and not to local citizens. They typically have specialized police functions and do not act in a general law enforcement capacity. For these reasons, the focus here is on policing by county sheriffs and by municipal police, agencies that account for the overwhelming majority of rural police activity.

Municipal police generally limit their work to the borders of their towns. The municipal police chief is usually appointed by and accountable to the city council, and in many communities can be fired at will. In contrast, the sheriff is usually elected and is thus more directly accountable to local citizens. Sheriff’s offices have county-wide jurisdiction. In addition to traditional law enforcement, sheriff’s offices are usually responsible for running the local jail, providing court security and prisoner transport, and serving civil papers.

There are more than 3,100 counties in the United States, each with a locally elected sheriff, and more than three-fourths of those counties are nonmetropolitan. Similarly, there are more than fifteen thousand municipal police departments in the United States and just under half of those are in nonmetropolitan counties. While large agencies fit common stereotypes of police, these stereotypes are wrong. Nationwide, 90% of all police agencies have fewer than fifty sworn officers, and half of all agencies have fewer than ten officers. Considering only nonmetropolitan areas, the typical municipal police department has three officers and the typical sheriff’s office has eight officers.

Police Work in Small Towns and Rural Areas

Police work in small towns and rural areas often differs in style and substance from that in the largest cities. It would be a mistake to label the work of rural and small-town police as law enforcement, because their duties go far beyond enforcing the law. It would be more accurate to describe their work as policing. In many rural areas and small towns, the police are the only social service agency available around the clock 365 days a year, and they may be called on to deal with problems that in urban areas would be handled by other agencies. For example, some small town police chiefs’ duties included putting up Christmas lights on city streets and checking on chemicals in the water treatment plant. They may be called on to respond to barking dogs or to take medicine to an elderly shut-in.

Because rural and small town departments often have a small number of officers, rural police are more likely to be generalists. Rural police chiefs and sheriffs routinely take patrol shifts and rural officers may be called on to handle a variety of tasks, including community relations, evidence gathering, escorting funeral processions, investigating accidents, seizing methamphetamine laboratories, and responding to a bank robbery. This array of tasks, some of which urban police would consider menial, combined with the public perception that rural areas are crime free, leads many to believe that rural policing is safe while urban policing is dangerous. In reality, rural police work is both demanding and dangerous. The rate at which rural officers are killed in the line of duty is about double that of the largest cities.

The typical rural and small town officer must work with a series of restrictions not experienced by most urban officers. First, rural and small-town agencies are often restricted by a small tax base for funding their operations. The average per-officer expenditure for rural police is about one-half that of urban police, and in some jurisdictions rural police work without benefits packages. Some rural police must pay for their own uniforms and weapons, and job applicants who have already paid for state-mandated training often have an edge in hiring. Rural police often lag behind urban police in their access to and familiarity with technology, such as in-car computers and less-than-lethal force devices. Rural police are less likely to be unionized, hampering efforts to demand more resources.

A second limitation of rural police is the small size of most agencies. In a three-officer department, for example, officers are likely to patrol alone and without backup from their own agency. Small department sizes also make access to training difficult. In a small agency, sending one officer away for two weeks of training places a hardship on the remaining officers and may upset residents who expect their officers to be available at all times.

Finally, rural agencies must often deal with the problems posed by geography. Arizona, for example, has fifteen counties that are on average about the size of New Jersey. Long distances can mean a long response time and a long wait for backup. In some parts of the country, remote terrain also means numerous ”dead spots” where communication equipment, including personal cell phones, does not work.

Despite the obstacles, rural policing has some advantages over urban policing. For example, rural police work is highly public and visible. The citizen stopped for speeding may well ask, ”Why am I getting a ticket when you didn’t give one to Fred last week?” Familiarity and visibility may make rural police agencies more accountable to their public, a notion consistent with what urban police have tried to accomplish with community policing programs. Accountability is enhanced by the fact that sheriffs may be voted out of office and municipal chiefs can be dismissed by the city council, often at will with little notice.

Another advantage of rural policing is that the rural officer is likely to live among the people he or she polices. The officer will know citizens personally, seeing them while off duty as well as while on duty. In turn, local citizens will know a great deal about the officer and his or her family. Although communication skills are important in any police department, they are particularly necessary for rural police. In urban areas respect is often given to the uniform, but in rural areas respect is given to the officer as an individual. Thus, in rural areas donning a uniform is not enough. Respect must be earned. This, in turn, puts pressure on the police to be sensitive to citizen concerns.

An emphasis on accountability, combined with a personal familiarity, may help explain why rural citizens have a more positive view of their police than do urban residents. For example, urban citizens are three times more likely than rural citizens to believe their police engage in brutality and corruption.

Despite the handicaps they face, rural police do a better job of solving crime. For every major index offense, clearance rates (the percentage of crimes solved through an arrest) are higher in rural agencies than in urban agencies. For example, in rural areas about 78% of murders are solved through an arrest, whereas in the largest cities only about 57% are solved. Despite substantial advances in technology and in the science of criminal investigation, homicide clearance rates in the largest cities have dropped substantially during the past forty years, but have only dropped slightly in rural areas.

Rural and small-town police have been little studied and are poorly understood. This is unfortunate because in many ways rural police are models of how police agencies can do more with less. On the whole, when the obstacles and benefits are considered together, rural and smalltown policing holds up well against what is done in urban areas. Rural and smalltown police are more well liked and respected by the public than urban police, and they do a better job of solving crimes than do urban police. Rather than taking urban police as the model to be emulated, perhaps it is time to see what urban police can learn from their rural counterparts.

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