As Goodhue Police Chief Josh Smith struggled this summer to fill vacancies in his small department, he warned the town’s City Council that unless pay and benefits improved, finding new officers would never happen.
When nothing changed, Smith quit. So did his few remaining officers, leading the Minnesota town of 1,300 residents to shutter its police force in late August.
America is in the midst of a police officer shortage that many in law enforcement blame on the twofold morale hit of 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic and criticism of police that boiled over with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. From Minnesota to Maine, Ohio to Texas, small towns unable to fill jobs are eliminating their police departments and turning over police work to their county sheriff, a neighboring town or state police.
The trend isn’t altogether new.
At least 521 U.S. towns and cities with populations of 1,000 to 200,000 disbanded policing between 1972 and 2017, according to a peer-reviewed 2022 paper by Rice University Professor of Economics Richard T. Boylan.
In the past two years, at least 12 small towns have dissolved their departments.
Goodhue County is now under contract for law enforcement duties in the town of Goodhue, even as Sheriff Marty Kelly tries to fill four vacancies in his own department. He said he has around 10 applicants for those jobs. By comparison, one open position in 2019 drew 35 applicants, he said.
Kelly knows that to get to full staffing, he’ll have to hire new deputies away from other towns or counties — creating vacancies in other places that will struggle to fill them.
“It’s scary,” Kelly said. “We are robbing Peter to pay Paul. And we’re not alone.”
At the heart of the problem is the exodus from law enforcement. Officer resignations were up 47% last year compared to 2019 — the year before the pandemic and Floyd’s killing — and retirements are up 19%. That’s all according to a survey of nearly 200 police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, DC.-based think tank. Though the survey represents only agencies affiliated with PERF, a fraction of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide and is not representative of all departments, it’s one of the few efforts to examine police hiring and retention and compare it with the time before Floyd’s killing.
Compounding the exodus of veteran officers, young people are increasingly unwilling to go through the months of training necessary to become a police officer, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
“Fewer people are applying to be police officers, and more officers are retiring or resigning at a tremendous rate,” Wexler said. “There’s a shortage of police officers across the country.”
Agencies of all sizes are struggling to fill open positions. But the problem is especially dire in smaller communities that can’t match the pay and incentives offered by bigger places.
Another Minnesota town, Morris, dissolved its police department last year after continued departures of officers. The town of 5,100 residents was down to two officers at the time. In Maine, the town of Limestone disbanded its police department in March. Neighboring Van Buren did the same two years earlier.
Generally, crime rates were unchanged in towns that dropped their departments, the Rice University study found. Leaders of several towns said they’ve been happy with the change.
Town leaders in Washburn, Illinois, dissolved their department in 2021 and let the county take over law enforcement duties for its 1,100 residents.
“You really can’t tell much of any difference,” Mayor Steve Forney said. “The sheriff’s department is very responsive. I like it. I was always one who was very hesitant to go this direction, but I feel it’s working for us.”
Lott, Texas, a town of about 700 residents, disbanded its department last year. Mayor Sue Tacker said the town was going broke and couldn’t afford to pay two officers and two other employees.
With county deputies now patrolling Lott, the crime rate remains low and response times have been good, Tacker said. She believes residents are OK with the change.
“I haven’t had any griping or fussing,” Tacker said.
Goodhue occupies about one square mile of land 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Minneapolis. It’s made up of tidy homes with a few small businesses — a bakery, a florist, a café, a supermarket, a taxidermist — most of them in brick storefronts in the small downtown area.
The town struggled for years to recruit and retain officers. The City Council had boosted pay by 5% earlier this year and gave Smith a $13,000 raise.
It wasn’t enough. Smith told the City Council at a meeting on July 26 that it was virtually impossible to attract applicants for a job starting at $22 an hour. That’s about $10 per hour less than Goodhue County deputies earn.
“There’s zero incentive to come out here to a small town,” Smith said at the meeting.
Two weeks later, Smith gave notice of his resignation. Within days, the remaining full-time officer and five part-time employees also called it quits. The town agreed to pay the county about $44,000 for law enforcement services through the end of this year. Goodhue leaders will decide later whether to extend the contract through 2024.
Goodhue resident Ron Goebel, a retired accountant, said he believes the sheriff’s department will do a good job, and he expects townspeople to help out, too.
“People can kind of watch out for each other a little bit,” Goebel said, noting that he himself watches for strange vehicles in his neighborhood. “We pretty much know our neighbors.”
Goebel fears the loss of the police department is another challenge for Goodhue and towns like it across the nation.
“As you lose your schools, you lose your businesses and you lose your police force, how much longer can the town actually be viable as a town?” Goebel asked.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Video journalist Mark Vancleave contributed.