Rural narcotics enforcement is challenging. Some say it can't be done, others say it can. One rural sheriff said, "I would need 50 more deputies to make an impact." Another law enforcement administrator told members of a rural narcotics task force, "Keep the locals happy, don't worry about catching anyone." When one city council member asked a small town chief what was being done about narcotics enforcement, the chief replied, "Don't ask the question if you won't accept the answer."
Rural law enforcement agencies serving less than 7,000 citizens cannot dedicate employees to full-time narcotics enforcement. Often narcotics enforcement within this type of jurisdiction is a "catch as catch can" situation. Patrol officers may stumble across a controlled substance investigation, but planning and executing specific investigations is not economically feasible.
However, rural narcotics enforcement does not have to be a major undertaking. Nor does it require a dedicated enforcement team, although having such a team is a great benefit for the small community. The only requirement necessary to enforce controlled substance laws in a rural setting is a dedicated law enforcement agency and a committed community.
Know thy community
Small rural communities are unique. Everyone seems to know everyone, and law enforcement officers are often called by their first names and asked how their families are doing. "Mayberry R.F.D." is a reality, and Andy Taylor is not just a character on television. In a community where everyone knows everyone, users and abusers of controlled substances keep their dark secrets hidden and usually a select few individuals are involved.
The arrest or discoveries of these individuals can shock the community. Juveniles, attorneys, business leaders, teachers, city council members, county commissioners and other upstanding citizens are not exempt from being a suspect or arrested. Law enforcement and the community must be prepared for this before launching controlled substance investigations. Each needs to take an active role but most of all, each needs to support the other.
Know the scope of the problem
Before initiating any controlled substance investigation, agency department heads must determine if a controlled substance problem actually exists. Using surveys, studying arrest statistics and conversing with adjoining agencies will provide clues to the problem's severity. The agency should survey hospitals and counseling centers within the jurisdiction and those adjoining the jurisdiction. If the number of drug overdoses at hospitals exceeds the number of voluntary check-ins at rehab centers, a serious problem may exist.
Talking with adjoining agencies will determine if other rural agencies are having similar problems, or if citizens from one jurisdiction are traveling to another to partake in the use of controlled substances. It is also wise to stop by local pharmacies to learn if citizens might be diverting prescription drugs.
Rural investigation dynamics
If the jurisdiction is diagnosed with a substance abuse problem, authorities must then determine the most effective investigatory approach. While traditional narcotics investigations — such as undercover operations, confidential informants and reverse stings, — may be successful in more populated areas, they are time consuming and frustrating in rural settings.
Rural narcotics investigations must be documented so there is no doubt the investigation was accomplished according to law and policy. Small agencies must also keep all employees informed when tackling the investigations. Some agencies fall into the "pit of secrets," where a dynamic leader neglects to inform employees of ongoing investigations. In larger departments, information passes through a "need-to-know" network. But in small departments, every employee, whether sworn or non-sworn, may have a need to know. The small department operates as one team, where each team member knows what other team members are doing, have accomplished (or have not accomplished) on their shifts. This information is passed on so the oncoming shift can continue the work of the previous shift. In small departments, there is no room for one individual to possess vital information and keep it from others. Likewise, non-sworn personnel in small departments play important roles that contribute directly to the mission, goals and objectives of the department.