GRAND MEADOW — In his 23 years with the Grand Meadow Police Department, Chief Jim Richardson has learned how important law enforcement coverage is in the small town of 1,160.
Oftentimes, he's the only officer on duty throughout the week, responsible to protect Grand Meadow residents in emergencies. His service is a lifeline for many in this town. Not to mention, he has to juggle other responsibilities as a detective and a school liaison officer at times.
"You've still got to respond to medicals, to whatever else out there," Richardson said. "You have to juggle everything. I could be dealing with directing a semi-truck and then someone else is waving me down. I'm never surprised with the spectrum of the things that can fall on my plate in a day."
This summer, Richardson's workload was about the busiest he's had in his career. He took more than 600 reports, excluding calls that didn't warrant a police report.
Grand Meadow is lucky to have its own police department, he said, but not many small towns have the luxury of manning a 24/7 law enforcement agency.
"What might be urgent to me, may not be urgent to you," he said. "I constantly deal with that question. I know Austin can get 15 calls behind and don't get to a person until four hours later, then they gotta work. It turns into work the next day. That's a constant struggle for law enforcement when you're short-handed."
Some smaller towns outsource their law enforcement to either the county, a nearby city or, in some rare instances, going without a formal arrangement as alternatives to spending significant amounts of money operating their own police departments.
In Fillmore County, only three cities have their own police department — Rushford, Preston and Chatfield — and two small towns, Peterson and Rushford Village, as of now have neither their own police nor a contract with the Fillmore County Sheriff's Office.
From the perspective of experts in the law enforcement field, the biggest challenge small-town police departments face is hiring and retaining new officers. In Minnesota, the number of rural police departments has declined to about 320 statewide, a decrease from 346 in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said while many small towns opt to outsource law enforcement to the surrounding county when it's not viable to start or sustain their own police departments, it sometimes affects relationships that are built between the rural communities and law enforcement.
Forest Lake, with a population of more than 18,000, has gone so far as to disband its police department. There, the city council cast a controversial vote to end 80 years of community policing, citing cost savings to contract the service to Washington County, according to news reports.
Forest Lake residents protested the decision for four months, and, in May, the city decided to reverse its decision. Few other cities have reversed their choices to disband. As many as 200 local police departments closed since the late 1960s.
"Most importantly, communities lose the ability to provide valuable input into the hiring of their chief law enforcement officer, which we believe is an expression of a community's values," Skoogman said. "Chiefs are appointed; sheriffs are elected. Local, community-based, control and oversight of policing is reflective in the policies and practices that govern the way law enforcement officers interact in the community."
Other cities might contract with a neighboring town as opposed to the county. Examples include Lanesboro and Fountain, whose law enforcement is provided by the Preston Police Department. Lanesboro City Administrator Michele Peterson said the city of 738 has been served by Preston since 2003. Lanesboro had its own police department before that.
The city projects a $94,809 contractual cost with Preston for next year. For the most part, Lanesboro has been content with the arrangement. Preston is about 13 minutes away.
"We've been happy with our service. It's a good contract," Peterson said. "I don't have any concerns. With any emergency services, it's harder to service in smaller communities like with fire departments and ambulances. How we pay for everything is an ongoing battle for all of us. These are important pieces for communities."
When a city is deciding whether to contract with a neighboring city or with the county to provide its law enforcement, there are "pros and cons" to consider, said Fillmore County Chief Deputy Kevin Beck.
"The ultimate goal, in my opinion, is to have someone there," Beck said. "You want the officer there that's as close as possible to the meet the needs."
Help for small cities
Within the last two to three years, the MCPA has taken a number of steps to offer support to police chiefs and police departments in smaller communities in Minnesota; for example, it has developed and delivered training that applies specifically to small agencies.
"Our organization is building a stronger peer support network where small agency chiefs can more easily connect with other chiefs and work through issues together," Skoogman said. "Police chief can be a lonely job — even in large departments — but it's particularly true in small departments."
The MCPA also invested in technology to make it easier for small-town police agencies to network and participate in creating more continuity between members of both small and large agencies.
"We are always providing counsel and guidance on a variety of issues for small-agency chiefs," Skoogman said. "It's at the core of what our association is and always will be about."
Retention and hiring
Another struggle rural agencies face is retaining and hiring officers. Small cities can't offer salaries and benefits competitive with those offered in bigger cities.
Fillmore County has been able to retain about 85 percent of its deputies to stay and serve the area for more than 17 years, Beck said.
"A lot of it has to do with budget," he said. "With the economy and tight budgets, to add a full-time officer is a lot of money. I would welcome more officers, but you have to balance things out with county commissioners and taxes. … You only get so much money to work with. It's hard."
In Grand Meadow, Richardson would put an advertisement in local papers seeking new hires, and normally he'd receive 15 to 30 candidates for a part-time position. But only seven people applied for one recent opening, he said.
"It could be things due to the environment right now," he said. "Parents could be telling their kids that they don't think they should be a cop, or they want a full-time position in a bigger department as opposed to starting out in a rural, small-town department. I really sensed that across the board talking to other small-town chiefs."
Richardson said he believes working in a small-town police department is a unique opportunity that isn't meant for just any person.
"I think small towns are finding it tougher to find people to run (police departments)," he said. "Every small town has its own personality. I do think small-town police departments are on the decline, but I know others that are in that 1,500 population that wish they could have their own departments. Being a peace-keeper is a tough job."
'We're not going away'
Providing law enforcement service in areas farther out from the county seat may be challenging, but the Fillmore County Sheriff's Office does the best it can, along with other small-town police departments.
Nineteen full-time officers, including Sheriff Tom Kaase, make their patrols in their coverage area, and they are always prepared to take the next call. However, it's difficult to know what the next emergency might be, not to mention where the call will come from.
The Fillmore County Sheriff's Office has designated deputies for some areas it has a policing contract with, including three who specifically serve Spring Valley. This doesn't mean, however, that deputies can't be called to an emergency in another part of the county if necessary.
"An emergency call is a high-priority call," Beck said. "If they don't have anyone close and one of our officers is closer, then we're gonna send that officer. They work for us, and we need to get someone there as quickly and as safely as possible."
In Grand Meadow, Richardson said, he often experiences backlogs of calls from having to handle cases on his own during the week. At times he may call in backup from his part-time officers or resort to calling mutual aid.
Having a good relationship with surrounding towns in case of emergency is a help for those serving in rural communities, he said. No matter if the town contracted out its policing services, or depends on others to fulfill their need, those who work the roads in rural areas need each other to protect those who live outside of the cities.
"The beautiful thing about law enforcement is that it's a huge family," Richardson said. "I'm blessed with the relationship we have with deputies. Any time an agency asks for help, it's very rare you don't get assistance as a police department to help the guys around us."
Not all spell doom and gloom for the viability of small-town police departments. Richardson said that while he's seen many officers come and go through his agency, he firmly believes law enforcement in rural communities still will hold significance for years to come.
"I feel very positive with a cup-half-full attitude for law enforcement all around," he said. "We can easily excuse things when we look at law enforcement now by saying, 'How we can survive?' We aren't going away."