Thursday, June 30, 2011

The High Cost Of Small Town Police Forces

The nation's economic woes are starting to manifest themselves here in Texas with local governments cutting back on services and in some cases, laying off law enforcement officers. I have been in law here in Texas for over twenty years and this is the first time I have seen Texas agencies actually lay off cops.

There is a story over at the Wall Street Journal about the small town of Alto, Texas whose city council just made the tough decision to furlough their entire five man department. Residents in Alto are fearful that crime in Alto is about to jump.

"Everybody's talking about 'bolt your doors, buy a gun,' " said Monty Collins, Alto's mayor, who was against the measure.

City Council members sent the police home when they decided they couldn't afford them. On June 15, the police chief and his four officers secured the evidence room, changed the passwords on their computers and locked the department's doors for six months—longer if local finances don't improve by then.

Of course, the model of every community having their own independent police force is not one that's universally used worldwide. Many countries have large national or regional police forces that cover communities of all sizes, from small to large.

Critics of national or regional police forces will argue that a community controlling their own police force makes for better community policing. However, it is possible to have community policing with a large police force. There are only a few regional police forces in the UK and they have always been at the forefront of community policing.

It may be more cost effective for law enforcement to be practiced by larger, more professional agencies than by small departments of 10 or fewer officers. When I lived in southern California, there were quite a number of communities that found it more cost effective to outsource their police services by contracting with the county sheriff to provide law enforcement in their community.

One benefit of larger, more professional police forces would be the reduction in the number of gypsy cops who always seem to be employed by small town police departments.

Maybe the belt tightening forced by the economy will force some systemic changes in the way we deliver law enforcement services in our communities.


  1. Having done some work with police agencies in other countries during the last few years, I've grown attuned to how horribly inefficient the U.S. fragmentation of law enforcement is.

    Crime patterns and series are overlooked because of fragmented data systems. Many small towns go without adequate coverage. There is enormous waste associated with duplication of resources in special positions. And I generally agree with your association of "larger" and "more professional."

    More important to our own field, jurisdictions with less that a few dozen officers will never be able to justify a full-time crime analyst. Some of them appoint an officer to fill the role part time, but it is rare that I find the same dedication to training and professional growth among people for whom crime analysis is one of six duties they have. This means that you have enormous swaths of the country--very notably in my own part, New England--covering millions of people in which there is no real crime analysis capability because those millions of people are fragmented among towns with 5, 15, 25 officers.

    Unfortunately, it is rare to find joint police forces serving multiple municipalities. I think you're right that the California system, in which county sheriffs often handle law enforcement services for small cities and towns, is a sensible system. Most of the territory south of Bakersfield is covered by some professional crime analysis capability.

  2. Chris, While you could feasibly offer regional crime analysis services to a bunch of small communities, the big issue would be the lack of a unified records system for all these little agencies.

    In spite of the pain associated with the poor economy, if it forces law enforcement to become more efficient that would be a good thing.


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