Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Keeping Rural Bobbies on the Beat

When a criminal investigation took them into the countryside, Sherlock Holmes did not want Watson to be beguiled by the bucolic landscape. Crime was more insidious there, Holmes believed, because people tended to be too trusting, and of course there aren’t as many “Bobbies on the beat” (i.e., police officers on patrol) in the country as in the city.

Many small towns do not have any Bobbies at all. In rural communities that measure their population in hundreds rather than thousands, sometimes the most prudent option is to work out an arrangement with the country sheriff’s office. This requires making hard decisions about response times and the costs of employing one’s own officers. How does one balance the cost savings of not having a local police department against what may be diminished public safety when the sheriff's office is many miles away?

The difficult tradeoffs involved in rural law enforcement were recently illustrated in the small Minnesota town of Elko New Market (population around 3800), about an hour’s drive southwest of Minneapolis. In April, the city council voted 3-2 to disband the police department and rely on the Scott County Sheriff’s Office for service. Faced with a public outcry, the council reversed itself two weeks later. Though costs were a key issue for the three city councilors who initially voted to disband the force, it appears that dissatisfaction with particular police personnel was also a factor.

Such is life in the main street fish bowl. In a face-to-face community, things can get personal pretty quickly — and professionalism can easily be compromised. Think of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s dismissal of her state’s public safety commissioner because he refused to fire her ex-brother-in-law as a state trooper. As the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Palin tried to paint a picture of rural folk as the “real” Americans, but the truth is that people are as flawed in small towns and rural areas as they are in cities, suburbs, or exurbs.

Rural law enforcement was probably never quite like Mayberry, RFD, the 1960s TV series featuring iconic images of small-town sheriff Andy Taylor, comic deputy Barney Fife, and Otis, the genial town drunk who knew when to lock himself in for detox. Today, Mayberry might have to eliminate Barney's position for budgetary reasons, and Otis might be running a meth lab.

Graffiti, often gang-related, is a well known problem in cities, but small towns are not immune to vandalism, either. Just ask the citizens of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, population 3500, where a statue of the beloved Peanuts’ character Linus outside the public library was recently defaced. If investigative successors to Holmes and Watson are headed for Sleepy Eye, let’s hope they are going without illusions. “Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves” should be the operative watchwords, no matter how many Bobbies are on the beat.

No comments:

Post a Comment