The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uvalde intensifies doubts over whether tiny police agencies make sense

Nearly half of all local law enforcement agencies in the United States have fewer than 10 officers

Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo, second from left, leads a six-officer police force that was overwhelmed by a horrific school shooting in May. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The criticism heaped on a six-member school police force in Uvalde, Tex., after its response to a mass shooter this spring has drawn attention to a ubiquitous American institution: the tiny police department.

While supporters of such agencies say they provide a personal touch that bigger police departments can’t match, critics say they often lack the training, expertise and accountability expected in today’s world of heavily armed criminals and heightened scrutiny of officers.

In Uvalde, it took more than an hour after the first officers arrived for law enforcement to enter the classroom and kill a gunman who fatally shot 19 children and two teachers. The chief of the school police force has borne the brunt of the blame, though larger agencies are also being strongly criticized. Police departments with fewer than 10 officers have also made headlines in Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere in recent years for hiring and misconduct issues.

As the nation wrestles with what policing should look like in the 21st century, many question whether these smallest of police departments — which function in nearly every state, employ more than 20,000 officers nationwide and provide the first line of defense for millions of Americans — can adequately carry out their mission. Officials in some states have pushed to consolidate the smallest departments into larger, neighboring agencies, often triggering opposition.

One reason police reform is hard? So many small departments.

“The only reason they exist is because of politics, and they provide jobs for some individuals,” said Charles A. McClelland Jr., who led the Houston Police Department from 2010 to 2016. “Uvalde is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the disjointed law enforcement jurisdictions we have in this country. Even though it happened in Texas, it can happen anywhere.”

‘Dedication to service’

Agencies with fewer than 10 officers make up nearly half the nation’s more than 12,200 local departments, a 2016 federal survey found. In many cases, these agencies have sprung up and evolved alongside the towns and communities they serve.

“These agencies literally define community-oriented policing,” said Sean Marschke, who is chief of the 15-officer Sturtevant Police Department in Wisconsin and represents agencies with 15 or fewer officers on the board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Many of these chiefs are the Little League coach. They also serve on the volunteer fire department. … So there’s this dedication to service and really knowing the people that you’re serving in those communities by first name.”

It’s difficult or impossible, however, for these departments to match the resources of bigger ones — resources that go into things like training, communications systems, body cameras and professional standards units.

McClelland said officers in many of Texas’s smallest agencies receive only the state minimum of 40 hours of ongoing training every two years, while those at bigger agencies often far exceed that. “The state requirements are very minimal, and it’s not adequate,” he said.

The lack of resources also translates to lower pay and fewer benefits, which makes it difficult for agencies with single-digit rosters to recruit.

In Maryland, Timothy Maloney, a trial lawyer who served in the state legislature from 1979 to 1994, says tiny departments there have long had a reputation for shaky hires.

“Some of their best officers are retirees from large county departments,” Maloney said. “But they also get the retreads and rejects from other agencies. There is a food chain in law enforcement like anywhere else.”

This chief is hiring women to reduce ‘toxic’ policing

The town of Fairmount Heights, with a population of about 1,500 along the edge of Maryland’s border with D.C., has lost all of its officers in recent years to resignations, misconduct and a death.

One officer, Martique Vanderpool, faces state and federal charges after he was accused in 2019 of stopping a 19-year-old for speeding and threatening to jail her unless she had sex with him. His lawyer Joseph Wright said Vanderpool "believes he will be fully exonerated at trial.”

The Fairmount Heights chief and other officers resigned soon after Vanderpool’s departure.

Last year, a grand jury indicted one of the town’s remaining officers, Philip Dupree, on charges of kidnapping, perjury and misconduct in office. Dupree, who also awaits trial, allegedly pepper sprayed a handcuffed man and then left him unattended at the station for hours. He had been terminated from two other departments before Fairmount Heights hired him, state records show.

Justice Dept. to probe Maryland State Police hiring, discrimination reports

After the lone remaining officer died last month, the town council decided to rebuild the department, rather than seek policing services from Prince George’s County, which long has struggled with allegations of misconduct and corruption.

“We looked at a lot of alternatives, and basically when we weigh it all out, it seems like the community prefers having our own unit,” Mayor Lillie Thompson Martin said. “They want to see our community police remain.”

Chief Earl Fox, who runs a three-officer department in Crofton, Md., northeast of Prince George’s in Anne Arundel County, says that giving someone a second chance can seem preferable to letting a position stay vacant. “I struggle to find a qualified candidate,” he said.

Fox hired one officer after he’d been fired from a larger sheriff’s office, and within months the second-chancer was in trouble again, accused of felony theft. But Fox says another of his officers has redeemed himself after his termination from a previous agency.

Large police departments have produced plenty of scandals of their own, to be sure. It’s difficult to know for certain how small departments fare in comparison, because little research has been done on them, said David Weisburd, a distinguished professor at George Mason University and executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

Weisburd points out that local control is a feature of U.S. society. Communities like to have their own police just like they have their own libraries and educational systems. “There are great advantages to local control, because it means the community is very close to what’s going on,” he said.

Texas report says police agencies large and small erred in Uvalde shooting

But Weisburd said the advantages of scale for larger police forces, such as specialized units and data-driven crime prevention strategies, are clear. “I don’t really see how you make a defense for a six-member police department.”

Mergers — and pushback

The spotlight was cast on a tiny department in Pennsylvania this month, when the town of Tioga hired as its lone officer the former Cleveland police officer who fatally shot Tamir Rice in 2014.

In that state and across the nation, officer shortages are spurring many small agencies to consider merging with neighbors. In the area around Scranton, Pa., more than a dozen towns are discussing whether to consolidate their departments, largely because of recruiting challenges and increased costs.

The state’s Department of Community and Economic Development is working to facilitate those discussions and offer technical help. But there, as elsewhere, some worry that a regionalized department would lose focus on community policing.

“You’re not going to get a police officer that quick when there’s a blocked driveway, a barking dog, things of that nature,” said Chief Andy Kerecman of the Throop Police Department, which has seven full-time officers and six part-timers. The town of about 4,000 is participating in a study to explore merging its police force with seven others.

Pennsylvania AG says town broke law in hiring Tamir Rice’s killer

“I know probably 98 percent of the people in this town,” said Kerecman, 62, who grew up in Throop and whose father served on the police force before him. “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘This better not happen.’ ”

There are downsides, too, for officers, who stand to lose prized shifts, rank, and hard-won contracts, Kerecman said. “The officers obviously are saying, ‘What, are you kidding me?’ ”

In Florida, some consolidation was spurred by the 1993 shooting death of Officer Jeffery Tackett, who was the only member of the Belleair police force on duty one night as he investigated a prowler. Tackett found the suspect and radioed for backup. Then the man snatched his gun. “I’m shot. It’s bad,” Tackett radioed next. The dispatcher reached a nearby town’s police department. But by the time help arrived, Tackett was dead.

The shooting death sparked a debate about whether the police agencies dotting Florida’s central Gulf Coast should turn their responsibilities over to larger sheriff’s offices. Many residents and town officials were fiercely protective of the tiny departments, which they saw as providing a constant and personal presence.

Dennis Jones, then a state representative, saw it differently.

“These little towns with seven, eight people on a police force. They don’t have any K-9s. They don’t have any undercover drug detectives. They don’t have a homicide division. They don’t really have squat, other than to walk around the community and be seen,” Jones said in a recent interview. “But that’s not really law enforcement in this day and age.”

Much of America wants policing to change. But these trainers say officers are doing fine.

In Florida’s Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says there are 24 cities in his county, and 13 of them now contract with his agency for police services, getting “as good or better services” than what they could provide on their own.

By taking advantage of the sheriff’s office’s economy of scale, a small town or city will “save a boatload of money,” Gualtieri said.

Studies on consolidations of police departments elsewhere also have said they reduce overall costs. But Kerecman, the chief in Throop, Pa., said many towns worry they’ll end up subsidizing police service in neighboring communities that have more crime.

Gualtieri said officials give all sorts of reasons for not wanting to give up their police departments, predicting that deputies won’t know their communities and will take too long to respond.

“It’s all a bunch of concocted nonsense,” the sheriff said. “Control, that’s what it comes down to. They like to be able to control the police department.”

Protecting school campuses

Uvalde’s school district used to contract for part-time school resource officers with the Uvalde Police Department, which has about 40 officers. But the setup had its problems, said Mickey Gerdes, former president of Uvalde’s school board.

“The city police chief at the time needed the officers for his own shifts, so it was getting harder to coordinate scheduling resource officers for the junior high,” Gerdes said. “The police chief said, if you want to continue using our officers, we’re going to need you to contribute more money.”

At the time, a potential school shooter wasn’t top of mind for the board, Gerdes noted. “It wasn’t about anything more serious than the administration at the high school and the junior high needed additional assistance in sort of monitoring and policing the campuses for minor student infractions.”

In 2018, Gerdes said, “we decided as a district, based on the recommendation of the superintendent at the time, that in the long run it would be easier to coordinate and just have our own department.”

Pete Arredondo spent years preparing for a school shooting. Then it happened.

More than a quarter of school districts in Texas — 329 out of 1,022 — employ their own officers, according to a report by the Texas School Safety Center that covered 2017-2020. The majority of those departments reported having between one and five officers on the payroll.

Since the Uvalde shooting, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly voiced their desire to put more officers on school campuses. Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne, legislative chairman for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, counseled at a June state senate hearing that contracting with sheriff’s agencies, rather than creating new departments, would be best.

“The system works,” Hawthorne told lawmakers. “It saves money … because the sheriff’s office already has the infrastructure. You do not have to go in and re-create an entire police department infrastructure, whether it’s the law enforcement software, whether it’s the fleet operations and vehicles.”

Loading...