A Big Challenge for Small Agencies

By Paul Peluso for Officer.com 

As inflation and supply chain issues continue to wreak havoc on civilian life, law enforcement agencies have felt the squeeze as well. Gas prices, an endless backlog for new patrol vehicles and price increases for just about everything have forced chiefs and sheriffs across the county to look for cuts in already barren cupboards. This is especially true for small agencies that must grapple with dwindling budgets and a depleted applicant pool.

According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly half of all local law enforcement agencies in the United States have fewer than 10 sworn officers. Over 90% of local law enforcement agencies employ fewer than 50 sworn officers/deputies and serve populations less than 50,000. Small agencies have many of the same problems as larger ones but have a much smaller tax base. This means less funding for personnel, training, equipment, technology and other resources necessary to prevent crime and keep the public safe.

Officer Magazine recently spoke with three law enforcement leaders who serve on the board of governors of the Small & Rural Law Enforcement Executives Association about the challenges they face in their communities as well as possible solutions.

Managing smaller agencies

Christopher Workman, who is the Chief of Police of the Cheswold Police Department in Delaware, took the reins in 2013 after serving as a lieutenant at another department in the state. At that time, the department was comprised of one officer. Having just begun his tenth year with the department, he now oversees three full-time officers with a fourth coming out of the academy, along with five part-time officers. He says that current staff levels allow him to cover the town of 2,000 residents 24/7/365.

“I have a good working relationship with my council. They’ve done a good job with us going back and forth with what manpower we need. They also know we need to grow bigger as these developments start building more houses. If we start getting more influx of people because it just expands how much your patrol time is,” he says. “Right now, I can leave the station and patrol every street and it takes me about an hour. As these places grow, now you are looking at an hour and a half or two hours before you ever get back to the other place you were.”

Bill Brueggemann has been the sheriff of Cass County, Nebraska since 1991. When he joined the agency in 1987, he was the eighth deputy. Now, he has more than 40 deputies, most of whom work in the jail. Since he took over as sheriff in 1991, he went from an 18-bed jail built in the 1914 to a 110-bed jail that’s been in operation for about 20 years now.

The new jail building was built primarily off of federal grants from the U.S. Marshal’s Service and other agencies. Since COVID hit, the jail population is down. The average is right under 70, 40 of which come from the U.S. Marshal’s Service. “The county still very much depends on that,” he says. “The U.S. Marshal’s don’t have their own jail, so we bring in about $1.4 million each year, which helps offset the cost of the jail. We’re very dependent on that.”

Relying on grants

Travis Patten, sheriff of Adams County, Mississippi, was elected in 2016 and oversees the agency that has 77 total employees with at least 45 sworn officers. When he became sheriff, Patten made a strong push for grant money. At one point, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office averaged around $1.5 million in grants per year. The agency was able to revamp its computer system through a grant from Operation Underground Railroad. Another grant from the USDA helped pay 85% of the purchase of new patrol vehicles. This past year, however, it has been more difficult. “Some of the simple grants that we went after and tried to obtain this year we weren’t able to get,” he says. In the past, Adams County received grants for bulletproof vests on the state and local level, but this year those were denied. A grant through the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime was cut on a federal level. They had three officers employed full-time on that grant. It was cut by $350,000 for the agency, which took Patten down to one full-time officer and one part-time.

He said that grants make up a big part of his budget, but most federal grants, like ones through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), are rarely funneled down to smaller agencies. “I know major cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta, those guys have a lot going on but sometimes people seem to forget that a lot of the troubles from the big cities are funneled right through our rural communities when you talk about drugs and the gun pipeline,” he says. “We need their help too.”

Despite some of the recent issues, he says smaller agencies have to keep going after grants. “Hire a grant writer on staff like we did here to write those grants and go after every grant that is possible,” he says. “We know that the county budget or city budget can’t handle everything we need to meet the law enforcement needs for the community right now. We have to rely on grants in order to sustain the integrity of our agency and keep hope alive for our community with all of the battles and different crises we’re facing nationwide.”

While the Town of Cheswold focuses on bolstering the department’s manpower and day-to-day needs, Workman has used grants to fill gaps in funding “I always laugh and say that I live off of grants,” he says. “Grants help me run this department. Whether it’s state, local or federal grants, that is what keeps me going. I have to budget accordingly to make sure that we have the most up-to-date equipment for our officers to do their jobs and that is mainly what I use those grants for: updating and upgrading technology, firearms and equipment.”

When Workman took over the department, the equipment was outdated and the patrol cars were in dire need of repairs. “We were able to apply for some state grants to begin becoming self-sufficient. Ever since then, that’s just kind of what we’ve grown to. The upgrade of our computers systems, body cameras, TASERs, anything that you can think of that is equipment related, they have come to us through grants.”

Brueggemann says that while 90% of law enforcement is made up of small and rural agencies, 90% of federal grants go to the larger agencies. “We’re competing with that constantly.” He said that part of the issue is the lack of staff and training. “We don’t know how to write grants. You take a look at the larger agencies, and they have full-time grant writers. Maybe if you can get together with other counties or your commissioner or city council that can help to try to get grants. There is money out there that is available. It’s just finding the time to write the grant and then following up. It’s next to impossible for smaller agencies.”

The hiring dilemma

Workman says that hiring and salary demands are the biggest hurdle for small departments right now. “(The council) is trying to find any way we can to raise salaries so we can complete, but it’s not that easy. When you’re fighting the Delaware State Police, who are starting people at $60,000 and you are fighting Dover, who are starting at $50,000-something, Smyrna at $50,000-something and the most I can offer you to start is $43,000. That’s a big leap. You’re talking for small departments a minimum of a $10,000 difference in pay.”

The number of applicants has also been a big hurdle to staffing. “Right now it’s very few because everybody is hiring,” he says. “I had just put out a hiring process and I got one person who I have coming out of the academy. I had one application and it was him. Luckily it fit. For a small department also, you can’ t just take people. They have to fit with your department. You need to be selective when you can’t be,” he says with a laugh. “You don’t have specialty units you can put people in, so they have to fit the mold of your department. That is becoming harder because you don’t have a pool of applicants.”

As a possible solution, Workman has begun speaking with neighboring departments about the possibility of playing a role in their hiring process. “Smaller departments such as us have to embrace the fact that you are a steppingstone,” he says “A lot of times as department leaders, as chiefs, you get to that point that you think it’s a slap in your face if someone goes somewhere else. I kind of look at it as the opposite. If we can embrace that and work with departments that get a greater pool of applicants, then maybe we can pull from those applicants with the caveat, saying ‘Look, you are going to come here and get the knowledge-base, education and training that is going to help you move to another department if you want.”

The idea would be to partner with larger department and recruit applicants that passed the requirements, but in the end were passed over. “If you continue that on a rotating basis, then you always have a pool of people because you are partnering with the people around you and not trying to fight for one yourself,” he says, likening it to Major League Baseball’s farm system. “I think if it works, it will be a big help.”

Patten says that hiring has been an extreme challenge for in Adams County. “We’re losing officers to out-of-state agencies that are paying huge sign on bonus to come and move to their state,” he says. “It’s hard for us in Mississippi where the average officer makes between $16 and $18 per hour to compete Arizona where the starting salary for a lateral is $95,000 plus a $30,000 sign on bonus. That is extremely hard to deal with.”

In order to combat this issue, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office has been going after what Patten describes as an “unorthodox” type of officer. “With the mental health crisis that is striking America right now, we had to change how we do business and how we police because of all of the reform that has been asked for and that is motion. The number one recruit here at the sheriff’s office has been social workers,” he says. “A lot of people go to college and get these degrees in social work, but the opportunities to work in those job fields are not there. What we started selling in Adams County is ‘come let us help you put your social work degree to use.’ When are dealing with the mentally ill; when you are dealing with children from broken homes; when you are dealing with domestic violence and things of that nature, everybody should have a multi-facet approach to dealing with these crimes and people expect law enforcement to be social workers.”

Patten says that the social workers are primarily recruited through social media and are put through the academy, adding that when they’ve hired, they already know how to de-escalate and are training how to read the signs when someone is going through a crisis versus when they are just agitated and angry about a situation. “When we hired these social workers and started getting them in place on each shift, I’ve seen our use of force begin to drop,” he says. “The use of TASERs and sprays and batons, all of that began to drop because de-escalation techniques were being applied and put into place. We took it a step further than that and started getting our people Crisis Intervention Training as well. It was really changed the relationship we have with the community because we were already working on building a rapport with the community, but now that people are seeing this side of officers and seeing the empathy added to that, our relationship with our community is skyrocketing down here.”

Brueggemann says that the Cass County Sheriff’s Office is currently short four deputies. A big part of that is due to the fact that larger counties have been offering sign-on bonuses, making it tough to compete. “Our county was good and gave a $2 raise to all sworn officers. It’s still $5 less than anybody around us.”

He also blames the shortage of officers on people not wanting to get into law enforcement like they used to. Last year the Cass County Sheriff’s Office spent roughly $13,000 on advertising and testing and ended up with 14 applications. Out of those, nine people showed up to the testing and out of those, four passed. Two of those four failed the polygraph and psychological test. After all of that time and money, the agency only found two qualified recruits.

“We make them sign a two-year contract. That’s about the break-even point for the taxpayers. Most of them do, but they are all looking to go to the bigger counties. It’s how much money is in your pocket at the end of the week, seems to much more important to this newer generation.”

 Reaching out for help

Workman stresses that there is no room for rivalry with neighboring law enforcement agencies. He says that working with nearby departments that are larger in size and have more resources helps keep costs down and expand capabilities.

“If we have a fatal accident, we reach out to them and request, whether it’s Delaware State Police or Dover Police or Smyrna Police, to use their fatal reconstruction team,” he says. “We don’t have that equipment and can’t afford that equipment. They have that because they have the funding or the ability to send somebody for a month or two for specialized training.”

Building those relationships takes time, and Workman says leaders of smaller departments have to be willing to put their ego aside and do what they have to in order to give their residents the best possible protection and service. “You can’t do it all, especially if you are a department this small,” he says.

Patten says that it’s imperative to connect with other departments. “Reach out to other agencies and talk to the heads of these agencies at these departments to see what they have going on. Information sharing is key to survival for law enforcement. Being able to transition to today’s time is key. The only way you are going to do that is get outside of your community, go to these conferences, network with people and see what they have and bring it back to your agency and make it fit whatever skill you need for your community.”

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