What is rural law enforcement?
February 28, 2012
Although there are some similarities, rural law enforcement officers have a distinctly different experience than big city law enforcement officers. As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, a small town or rural area has a population of less than 50,000.
Rural law enforcement estimates show that 90% of local law enforcement departments in the U.S. employ less than fifty officers. 57% of law enforcement agencies have less than ten officers in their departments.
While rural law enforcement officers are relieved of a lot of the stress of big city law enforcement, such as frequent emergency calls, high crime rates, gang activities and more frequent accidents, there are other pressures they face that are unique to their job.
Studies show that rural law enforcement officers experience more isolation on the job. Because their departments don’t have the resources to pair officers in teams, they go out on emergency calls by themselves and conduct patrol duties alone. This results in stress because they know that if they face a violent situation, they do so alone. Many times, if they call for backup, it might take as long as 30 minutes to arrive.
Training and refresher courses are limited in rural law enforcement forces. The result is that officers frequently don’t have the skills to properly conduct their duties and often find themselves in dangerous or difficult situations that they aren’t properly trained to respond to.
Another factor in rural law enforcement activities is that they’re more likely to know the people involved in 911 calls. This can be especially stressful in calls in which victims are dead or injured on the scene. Responding to domestic conflicts in which they know the people involved also represents a situation that officers in larger cities don’t often face.
Rural law enforcement officers are also less likely to have training in stress management and recognizing signs of stress. Critical incident stress debriefings, which are relatively routine in larger departments, are also less likely to occur in rural law enforcement departments.
Another difference that rural law enforcement officers face is that their entire community generally knows that they’re in the law enforcement force. When officers in large cities are off duty, they essentially become just like civilians. When a rural officer is off duty, everyone is still aware that they’re in the law enforcement force. Officers report that this phenomenon makes it more difficult to relax.
Studies also show that rural law enforcement experience significant levels of boredom, which is to be expected in areas with lower population levels and less crime. Long periods of inactivity can erode an officer’s skills and feelings of worth.
Despite these challenges, most rural law enforcement officers enjoy their work and feel that they’re making a valuable contribution to their communities.