This is common knowledge to most rural journalists, but not to all their readers, viewers and listeners. So from time to time, it's good to do a story like John Hult did for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, reporting that officers had to learn to earn the trust of citizens, while placing their own trust and safety in the hands of the community. (A-L photo by Emily Spartz: Hanson County Sheriff Randy Bartlett)
"Trainers at the state’s police academies teach new officers how to respond under the assumption that there will be two officers for every domestic violence call and four for every burglar alarm," Hult writes. "In rural South Dakota, however, cops respond to disputes and suspicious circumstances alone, wearing bullet-proof vests as they approach rural homes and farmsteads. Backup, if available at all, might be 45 minutes away. Cops in small towns need to be especially skilled at talking people down. They also need to earn and keep the trust and respect of the community because their safety depends on it."
The high demand, and sometimes long hours, of the job has led to high turnover, with officers leaving for bigger cities that offer more money and safety, Hult writes. In places like Hanson County, in the southeastern part of the state, Sheriff Randy Bartlett and one deputy patrol a 436 square-mile area with 3,600 residents. With only two officers on staff, the nearest backup is usually state troopers or the state Division of Criminal Investigation, which is called upon to investigate serious crimes in small counties.
For many officers, the solution is building good relationships with the community, Hult writes. "Douglas County Sheriff Jon Coler sustained a broken arm one year into the job when he was attacked outside an Armour bar. The other patrons came to his aid and helped him subdue the suspect. Roger Knutson, a police officer in Beresford, a town of 2,000, said that "building a rapport and reputation for common sense within the community is important for keeping the peace and for an officer’s protection." Knutson told Hult, “For every bar fight I’ve ever been in, I had a local behind me." It also helps to build professional relationships with other officers, troopers and deputies in the area. Barlett told Hult, “You don’t have to like everyone, but you have to be professional. If I treat someone unprofessionally, is he going to come running when I call for help?” (Read more)