Rural police shortages reach a new level of danger
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Did you know that violent crime in rural areas is at an all-time high?
For example, Alaska has the highest crime rate per capita of any state in the U.S. One in three communities in Alaska have no local cops. One-third of villages lack local emergency services.
Often, convicted criminals are hired as cops since there are no other applicants. In the town of Stebbins, for instance, every cop has a criminal record, including the chief of police.
The Trump administration’s decision to declare an emergency in violence-plagued rural Alaska may help combat these horrific numbers.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, following his visit to Alaska, declared a public-safety emergency in rural areas of the state. The statistics are horrifying. The state has the nation’s worst rates of child abuse, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence and other violent crimes. Barr pledged $10.5 million in federal funds to combat these violent crimes and address the lack of police officers.
Rural law enforcement is state-funded and plagued by fiscal problems. The governor announced deep cuts recently, which are heavily impacting the village public safety officer (VPSO) program. Alaska State Troopers manage VPSOs that are too few for a state as large as Alaska.
Barr’s emergency funding will hopefully counter this and support the state program. The funds will also be available for recruiting more officers, training Natives, setting up mobile detention facilities, and rolling out a system for child protection.
While Alaska’s situation is indeed a dire one, things aren’t looking good for other states, either. Most rural areas have fewer officers per capita than in past years, which means existing officers are stretched thin.
These small forces often lack the resources for training and equipment that are accessible to larger urban departments. We talk about body cams, use of VR and drones in crime fighting these days, yet rural departments are reeling with lack of funds and are barely able to afford salaries.
Lack of employment and the opioid epidemic are the top reasons for the increase in violent crimes in rural areas. Methamphetamines remain a significant problem in many small towns. In the face of this crisis, there are dwindling tax bases, meaning fewer sheriff’s deputies and an acute shortage of law enforcement officers.
These skeleton crews have to cover more areas, and officer safety is a serious concern as well. Additionally, these areas must wait for hours for the police to respond.
The story of how police in rural Wisconsin pool resources and come up with innovative strategies to combat crime gives us hope. Most of them work in partnership with the state police, sheriff’s offices, and part-time officers.
They rely on larger state and federal agencies for emergency response units in critical incidents, lab and forensic work, and other technological assistance. Some have mobile command stations to police multiple areas that have no police presence at all.
But not all rural areas are as lucky. Alaska is a case in point. How can we help change this? Maybe the rise in the study of rural criminology is a good sign for all.
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