Todd Heisler / New York Times / Redux Pictures

Beat surrender: Small town police forces vanish

As many police departments stock up on showy weaponry, others are shutting down

SALISBURY, N.H. — It’s been four years since this quiet town in central New Hampshire lost its police department. Salisbury’s population is about 1,400, and it feels even smaller: Downtown consists of a post office, a church and a gas station, with a library up the road. When both members of the town’s part-time police force quit abruptly in 2010, residents rejected a motion to restaff the department. The town sold off one of its cruisers and turned its guns over to the county sheriff’s department. Today if a resident of Salisbury calls 911, the call goes straight to the state police, an arrangement that has led to some absurd scenarios: Recently, the state police were called in to resolve a dispute over a library fine.

Late last summer, the shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that ensued, sparked a national conversation about the militarization of U.S. police departments. “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized,” a major American Civil Liberties Union report issued in July declared, “in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war.” The town of Keene, about an hour’s drive from Salisbury, secured a $286,000 armored personnel carrier to defend itself against terrorist attacks in 2012, for example.

As many police departments stock up on showy weaponry, however, others are quietly disappearing. The number of state and local law-enforcement agencies with fewer than 10 officers dipped by more than 2 percent from 2004 to 2008, according to the latest figures from the Department of Justice. The department is currently preparing an updated report. John Firman, the director of the research division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is helping with the survey, and he says the number of small departments is likely to decline again. “We’ve called at least 20 state associations,” he said, “and every one said, ‘We’re losing smaller departments. They’re shutting down.’ ”

Big-city police work attracts the overwhelming majority of news coverage, academic research and depictions in TV and movies. That’s in part because a wide variety of citizens live cheek to cheek in cities and crime is more frequent and more dramatic than it is in sleepy rural areas. In Salisbury, a community about 15 miles northeast of the state capital, Concord, most calls to police have to do with domestic violence, theft, motor-vehicle accidents and “neighbor complaints,” according to state police Sgt. Ron Taylor. Salisbury’s biggest policing need in recent years occurred during a manhunt last winter that ensued when a man fled into the woods after a domestic violence incident. He surrendered within hours. (New Hampshire has one of the lowest violent-crime rates in the country.)

But if small-town police departments are less glamorous than urban forces — think Mayberry, not “The Shield” — they are by some measures performing the majority of police work in America. According to the 2008 Department of Justice report, more than half of the country’s local police agencies consist of fewer than 10 officers. So what happens when one of them disappears?

If you have folks coming from a troop a county over and they’re now serving your town, they may have no town connections and may not know the local issues.

James Brunet

professor, North Carolina State University

Small-town police departments go extinct for a variety of reasons. Often, it’s because of finances. In Vernon, Vermont (population 2,200), residents voted this spring to defund its department and instead contract with the county sheriff’s department; the town is set to lose almost half its tax revenue when a nearby nuclear-power plant closes at the end of the year. Sometimes small departments close after a scandal. Solon Springs, Wisconsin (population 600), eliminated its department this summer after its sole officer was accused of making unwanted sexual advances to a woman. “If you’re down at the five-officer level, a very small town, you’re vulnerable,” Firman said. By contrast, urban police departments struck by a recession or scandal may shrink or reorganize, but they rarely collapse. A notable recent exception is Camden, New Jersey, which eliminated its troubled 250-person force last year and replaced it with a force operated by the county.

In Salisbury the change came when both officers resigned within two days of each other back in November 2010. In his resignation letter, police chief Frank Jones referred to his recent negative performance review from the Salisbury Board of Selectmen, the town’s three-person governing body. Because of the review and “unprofessional conduct, slander and attacks on my integrity,” he wrote, “a hostile work environment has developed to the point that I am unable to continue as Salisbury’s chief of police.” The two officers clashed frequently with the board over issues such as the handling of a $4,000 Army Corps of Engineers grant to prevent flooding in the town.

Towns without their own police departments are not without law enforcement, of course. Depending on the state, a town without its own department typically relies on the county sheriff’s department, the state police or a neighboring town to provide coverage; even small towns with their own departments often depend on these services to cover officers’ off hours. When Jones and his sergeant, Dan Shapiro, left the Salisbury police force, the town engaged a consultant to figure out its next move and considered contracting for police services with a nearby town or with the county sheriff’s department. But ultimately a townwide survey suggested most citizens preferred to let the state police take over, a service the agency provides at no cost to Salisbury.

Nothing much changed on the surface in Salisbury when the local police department dissolved. Ken Ross-Raymond, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said that response times haven’t suffered and state troopers have made appearances at the local school and at senior-citizen luncheons and conducted self-defense seminars. “They’ve just gone above and beyond anything I ever expected,” he said. “They’re doing a fantastic job for us.” Occasional town surveys have suggested most Salisbury residents agree with him, although the last one garnered just eight responses. The Concord Monitor reported in January that the number of calls made to the police dropped by 50 percent since 2009, an indication that crime has at the very least not skyrocketed. Ross-Raymond said the town saves about $60,000 a year by going without its own department.

Small towns all have their own politics and peculiarities, and Salisbury is no different. Ross-Raymond’s critics include John Bentley, a contractor whose feud with the selectman chairman stretches back years. (Both men were born in Salisbury.) “Salisbury is the laughingstock of central New Hampshire,” Bentley said recently, seated at the kitchen table of his house at the end of a gravel road. “They don’t understand the risk they’re putting their citizenry in. They don’t understand the concept of prevention.” He said he has called 911 about a dozen times since 2010 and “the response has been paltry at best.”

One problem for Bentley and others is that it is difficult to prove the preventive effect of a local police car patrolling a street, especially in a place where crime rates are low. “There’s nobody sitting at the Crossroads store” — one of the few retail businesses in Salisbury — “drinking a coffee in a blue suit to make people think that it’s not a good idea to rob the store,” Bentley said. “There’s nobody sitting out beside the road running radar in the morning to slow people down. There’s nobody driving around looking for a van or a pickup truck up backed up to a house ... If the neighbor happens to see it, he might or might not call it in. He might not even notice it. There’s nobody dedicated to looking for things that might be going on.”

Another subtle loss when a town forgoes its own police force is the kind of intimate local knowledge that comes from policing daily in the same community. “It may lead to a less personalized and locally controlled police force,” said James Brunet, an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University. Brunet published a paper titled “Goodbye Mayberry” this summer that analyzed the decline of rural police departments in North Carolina. “If you have folks coming from a troop a county over and they’re now serving your town, they may have no town connections and may not know the local issues.” It’s the opposite of the currently popular strategy of community policing, in other words.

Ultimately, however, individual communities are the ones making these decisions about what kind of law enforcement works best for them. And many don’t seem to miss their Mayberry-style departments; after all, if people feel truly unsafe, they tend to do something about it. “I personally don’t think it’s a great idea from a preventive perspective,” said Scott Hilliard, the sheriff of Salisbury’s Merrimack County. “But I respect the Salisbury taxpayers’ decision. It’s not up to the sheriff to tell people what they need. That’s why we live in the greatest country in the world.”

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