F or every big city in this country, there are countless small towns and rural counties comprised of sprawling fields, rolling hills, large lakes and wooded areas that stretch for miles. Law enforcement agencies in these locations deal with many day-to-day issues that departments in larger locales don’t have to worry about. Extreme staffing deficiencies, connectivity issues, response times and lengthy weights for backup plague these agencies.
OFFICER Magazine recently spoke to several leaders from rural agencies about the challenges they face and how they’ve learned to overcome or work around those issues in order to keep their communities and officers safe.
The Haines Borough Police Department is located the northern part of the Alaska Panhandle and sits near the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. “We are truly a very remote community,” says Police Chief Heath Scott, who serves on the Board of Governors of the Small & Rural Law Enforcement Executives Association. “We have peaks up to about 5,000 feet and we are all the way down at sea level.”
The community is about 2,500 people, but it sees an increase in visitor traffic in the summer, almost doubling or tripling the town’s size. The department is made up of five officers, including the chief, and five dispatchers. The agency is built to handle a service area of about 13 square miles but covers an area of about 2,200 square miles
The Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan has six full-time deputies and four additional part-time deputies who work seasonally on marine and ATV patrol in the summer and snowmobile patrol in the winter. The county population is 2,200 year-round residents but during the summertime, the population more than quadruples.
“We’re very remote,” says Sheriff Curt Pennala. “We have two state highways that feed the county, but other than that it’s a very remote county and a big portion of it is dirt roads for ATVs and snowmobile trails.”
The Alger County Sheriff’s Office is in the upper peninsula of Michigan, along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area and is made up of 12 full-time deputies including county Sheriff Todd Brock and his undersheriff
We are very heavy tourist community,” says Brock. “It proposes some challenges. Our emergency services get taxed quite heavily during our tourist seasons.” In the winter there are snowmobile crashes and in the summer, there are kayak rescues and rescues off the rocks.
Adams County Sheriff’s Sgt. David Nations has been patrolling the rural Mississippi county for more than five years. “I try to go to places that are way out, and I like to know that when I get out there and I stop and talk to somebody, they are very appreciative to see a patrol deputy out that way,” he says. “There are places in Adams County that we can’t access (on patrol) because of the Mississippi River.”
Branch County, Michigan, is a rural community comprised of farmland, small wooded lots and a long lake chain. Sheriff John Pollack oversees an agency of about 50 employees, but with only 10 deputies on the patrol side. The department went through deep budget cuts in 2013 that reduced the number of patrol deputies from 23. “We’re really a reactive patrol now as opposed to what we used to be which was a proactive patrol,” he says
Scott stressed that all of his officers live and work in Haines. “We do not ship officers in from the lower 48. There are some departments in Alaska that operate on two-week on, two-week off schedules, and we don’t do that. We operate as a fully functioning 24-7 police department with our staffing that provides some modification to our schedule at times. Five officers do not fit into a 24-hour schedule.”
Pennala says when patrolling a remote area, officers must be mindful and know that they may not have backup close by. “Sometimes your backup is coming from 45 to 60 miles away,” he says. “You really have to have the mindset of officer safety and realize what you are getting into.”
Brock only has two full-time road patrol officers at any given time and has to rely on neighboring agencies for help. The county line extends about 40 miles west and 60 miles east. “The distances in rural communities like this can be challenging if you have one accident or one emergency on the other end of the county and your car happens to be in the west and the emergency is in the east,” he says. “That 110 miles can be a huge factor for us.”
Connectivity, whether it be by radio or cell phone, poses big problems for rural law enforcement agencies. “It is a struggle. We have a long-term project to implement to add repeaters to our environment to make it more accessible,” says Scott. “We have many dark areas where we cannot transmit in. Once we pass about 10 miles out of town we switch over to a repeater station that’s housed at 26 miles, which serves us pretty well in that area, but the topography causes us to have secondary and tertiary options.”
In Keweenaw County, while the 800 mhz radio system has been pretty reliable, there has been some issues with the cell service, especially around the ATV and snowmobile trails “In the last year we’ve actually been working on our major ATV and snow trails we’ve been putting out emergency signs so it basically goes off of the 911 address system where we’ve got mile markers plotted in the trail where if somebody calls from a certain mile marker, they’ll give us the GPS location as well as the trail descriptor,” he says. “That being said, even with there being sign locators, t lot of times you find the sign locator, but your next step is to find cell service to call the emergency in.”
Pollack says that communications were an issue, but that a 800 mhz radio system was implemented starting a few years ago and four more cell towers were added. “We would send our guys out and may not hear from them for half a day because they would be out in an area where there was no radio contact unless they were in their car,” he says. “It was a real danger for us, because if they are out of their car, and they can’t connect with us and there is no way for us to know where they’re at.”
Nations says that the Adams County Sheriff’s Office deals a lot with cell issues. “Especially with me being a supervisor, if we’re out on something and you have nothing but your radio and you don’t know until you get there that you go to key up and the radio, which is on a new system for us and works like a cell-based radio, if you don’t have cell service, sometimes you don’t have radio service,” he says. “If you don’t have cell service, you have to drive down the road to an area where your radio picks up. If you watch your cell phone and your radio service, it kind of goes hand-in-hand.”
A beautiful land
Scott spent most of his career in the Washington, D.C. area and says that he ended up in Alaska by happenstance. “At the time, I was looking to transition from a deputy chief’s job to a police chief’s job and I was looking to move around where my wife is from in Nebraska.” He was applying to serveral agencies he had researched when a headhunter called and said: “I think you would be a good fit for this environment, would you mind throwing your hat in?” While the move was definitely a change, he says once he was there, he was hooked. “That was kind of it. Once you come here, it is hard to leave,” he says. “It is a beautiful piece of country. When I first came to Alaska, I had a strong feeling that I knew that God existed because I could not articulate a more beautiful area. There is no prettier place on earth. It’s like Switzerland meets the ocean. It is beautiful. It is very alluring, and it gets in your blood.”
In Michigan, Brock says that in his county, there is a strong sense of community. “It’s a beautiful area. We’re on the shores of Lake Superior and we’re proud of where we live,” he says. “We’re a tight-knit community. The true value of small and rural communities is that everybody pulls together in times of need and times of emergencies.”
This article appeared in the September issue of OFFICER Magazine.