Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Small-town police departments are understaffed, lack training and standards, says federal agency

Small-town police departments are facing a crisis, Kevin Johnson reports for USA Today. "Half of the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have fewer than 10 officers, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly three-quarters of agencies have fewer than 25 officers patrolling counties and towns where standards are uneven or non-existent."

University of Maryland criminologist Lawrence Sherman told the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing earlier this year, "So many problems of organizational quality control are made worse by the tiny size of most local police agencies."

The task force "was established in the aftermath of the riots in Ferguson, Mo., where the operations of the town's modest 53-officer department were excoriated in a March review by the Justice Department. Unmet public safety needs threaten small-town policing operations in communities across the country," Johnson writes.

"That review, which concluded that the local department engaged in a broad pattern of racially biased enforcement, also raised broader questions about the capacity of small communities to carry out crucial public safety responsibilities," Johnson writes. "Smaller agencies, the White House panel concluded, 'often lack the resources for training and equipment accessible to larger departments.'"

Similar problems can be felt across the nation. Damascus, Va., a small town of about 500 residents in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has had four police chiefs since 2007, Johnson writes. One was busted for dealing meth, two others came under fire for alleged proprieties and the fourth and most recent one said he resigned "after being told to 'quit working criminal cases' in the busy meth distribution corridor and pay more attention to the needs of tourists who also flock to the region, a gateway to the iconic Appalachian Trail." (Johnson photo: Damascus Police Department)

Mike Lambert, mayor of Sorrento, La., a town of 1,500, was told in a 2013 meeting with the town's new chief executive that the six-officer police force had "no credibility in the courts," Johnson writes. "Corruption was rampant; residents were being harassed. The capper came last year when the chief, Earl Theriot, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when he engaged in sexual activity at his office with an unconscious woman who had been the subject of a 911 call."  Lambert's only solution was to strike a deal "with the larger, better-trained and equipped Ascension Parish Sheriff's Department."

A review by the think tank Police Executive Research Forum said one of the problems in the St. Louis area, which inlcudes Ferguson, is that "St. Louis County contains a patchwork of police departments, many of which have jurisdiction over very small areas. This has led to confusion and distrust among residents, who often feel targeted and harassed by police officers and the municipal court system.'' The group recommended "'strategic consolidations of police agencies,''' advocating for the merger of about 20 small agencies into three so-called policing 'clusters.''' (Read more)

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