In 2018 the rate of violent crime in America's rural communities increased beyond the national average for the first time in 10 years, The Wall Street Journal reported on May 12 of that year.
In September 2018, two U.S. Department of Justice entities — the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) — and local U.S. attorneys came together on crime-related issues with law enforcement in rural communities nationwide. With funding from COPS, the National Police Foundation worked with the federal agencies and the U.S. Attorney's Office to coordinate the sessions.
The introduction to the agencies' report says the project was designed "to facilitate discussions and solicit input from rural law enforcement leaders regarding the strengths and challenges of rural agencies, their technical assistance and resource needs, and the most effective innovations in crime fighting and public safety response."
Snapshot of Rural America's Criminal Justice Environment
Planners designed the project against a backdrop of "declining job opportunities, lack of employment and increasing poverty in many rural communities — as well as a shrinking tax base to support service providers," the overview says. "Many rural public safety and public health organizations face staffing shortages, while existing staff are responsible for large geographic areas. Many are also challenged by lack of training and the need to wear multiple hats." Rising illicit drug use was contributing associated crimes to challenges in rural areas, too.
"But despite their increasing crime rates," the overview says, "smaller rural agencies are sometimes left out of the conversation regarding contemporary law enforcement needs and challenges." In response to this observation, the federal agencies gathered with local sheriffs, chiefs and command personnel in Deadwood, S.D.; Broken Bow, Okla.; Salt Lake City; Atlantic, Iowa; and Missoula, Mont., for one-day listening sessions held April–June 2019.
Overarching Concern: Insufficient Funding
In all five sessions, the main issue was not enough money. The lack of state and local financial support impacts all aspects of law enforcement and the ability of rural agencies to maintain safety and keep pace with community needs.
Even when federal funding may be available, the report said that law enforcement executives expressed concern about "application length, administrative requirements, competitiveness and restrictions on grant funding use." Concerns like these tend to keep rural agencies from seeking funds.
3 Distinct Challenges Keep 'Revolving Door' Spinning
Participants frequently raised the issue of people with substance use disorders being repeatedly processed, taking up deputies' and officers' time, with no resolution. Many participants were from communities with three challenges stemming from insufficient funding:
- Illicit drugs
- Trafficking from the southern border
- Insufficient resources for substance use, mental health and homelessness services
This revolving door pattern appears to track with increased illicit drug sales and use, which also exacerbates crimes such as thefts and burglaries.
Other Aspects of Rural Law Enforcement Impacted by Lack of Resources
Participants addressed other issues arising from lack of resources, including:
- Limited staffing for vast rural jurisdictions, which impedes the coverage of calls for service and other public safety needs
- Recruitment and retention in decline due to low pay and benefits, stress, dangers of the job, long hiring processes, increased training and certification, and declining perceptions of law enforcement officers
- Jail overcrowding, which is a function of limited capacity of aging facilities and the revolving door cycle
- Technology and equipment costs, especially the recurring expenses for maintenance and storage
Adapting Programs to Support Rural Agencies
The report's conclusion says, "The COPS Office and BJA have already revised some of their solicitations to include increased and more diversified funding categories" to allow rural agencies more opportunities to receive grants.
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