As Goodhue, Minn., Police Chief Josh Smith struggled this summer to fill vacancies in his small department, he warned the 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.
The U.S. is in the midst of a police officer shortage that many in law enforcement blame on the two-fold morale hit of 2020 — the 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, reports the Associated Press.
At least 521 towns and cities with populations of 1,000 to 200,000 disbanded policing between 1972 and 2017, said a 2002 paper Rice University economics Prof. Richard 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.
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 Police Executive Research Forum survey of nearly 200 police agencies..
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 PERF's Chuck Wexler.