Should Small Towns Have Police Departments?

Kenly is a small town with a population just under 2,000. It made national news recently when the chief and all the full-time officers in the Kenly Police Department resigned. It sounds like Kenly is planning to rebuild its police department. But that isn’t mandatory. For now, the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office is providing law enforcement services in Kenly, and Kenly could choose to do without a police department on a permanent basis. In fact, there are hundreds of municipalities in North Carolina that don’t have their own police departments. This post highlights some of the considerations for small towns thinking about whether or not to have a police department.

Small towns, small departments. The size of a police department tends to be proportional to the size of a municipality’s population and tax base. So small towns have small police departments. Nationally, the Washington Post reports that nearly half of local police departments have fewer than 10 officers. This Marshall Project story chronicles the lives of three officers, each of whom is the chief of a single-officer department.

In North Carolina, about 82 out of about 347 municipal police departments in the state (24%) have 10 or fewer officers. About 33 out of 347 agencies (just under 10%) have 5 or fewer officers. As discussed further below, small agencies face some challenges by virtue of their size.

As an aside, the prevalence of small agencies is a distinctive feature of American law enforcement. In England, the Home Office provides central, national supervision of 43 regional police forces. In Spain, two large law enforcement agencies, the Guardia Civil and the Policia Nacional, provide the vast majority of the law enforcement function.

The sheriff can provide law enforcement services. Sheriffs’ deputies have law enforcement authority throughout their counties, even within city limits. G.S. 15A-402(b). When a city has a police department, it makes sense for the police department to take the lead on matters that arise within the city. When it doesn’t, the sheriff assumes the law enforcement function. North Carolina has over 550 municipalities but just under 350 municipal police departments. So there are about 200 towns that don’t have their own departments and rely on the local sheriff.

Of course, sheriffs’ offices have limited resources, and providing police services within city limits may stretch sheriffs’ offices thin. One potential solution to that is for a town to enter into an interlocal agreement – basically a contract – with the sheriff, providing funds in exchange for a specified level of police services. Interlocal agreements are expressly permitted by G.S. 160A-461. For example, Mocksville, North Carolina, disbanded its police department in 2021 and entered into a contract with the Davie County Sheriff to provide certain services as described here. Contracts may cover issues like the number of deputies to be assigned to the city; how much the city will pay in exchange; who will bear the cost of vehicles and equipment for the deputies assigned to the city; whether the city will contribute towards overhead costs like the cost of operating a telecommunications center; and how insurance and liability concerns will be handled.

This sort of agreement may make less sense in the very smallest towns, where negotiating an agreement may be more trouble than it is worth in terms of the town’s ability to provide resources to the sheriff.

Policing is a high liability function. Policing involves searching people’s homes, chasing suspects in vehicles and on foot, arresting individuals who don’t want to be arrested, carrying firearms, and lots of other things that can go terribly wrong. Compared to garbage collection, snow removal, and other activities of city government it is a high liability function.

The risk of liability may be higher for small agencies. Due to budgetary constraints, they are less likely to have access to the latest technology and equipment. They may be less able to send officers for training. Providing patrol services 24/7 already stretches small agencies thin, and scheduling becomes exponentially more difficult when one or more officers are away. When some officers are away for training, out sick, on vacation, or on parental leave – or even when all officers are available – small agencies may not have enough officers to back one another up in dangerous situations. Given these challenges, and the lower pay and prestige that are sometimes associated with small-town policing, small agencies may struggle to attract high-quality officers and may be forced to consider more marginal candidates. Small agencies also typically have less access to legal advice than larger agencies.

Policing is increasingly highly regulated. It is not surprising that a high liability function like policing is highly regulated. There are statutory rules about officers’ territorial jurisdiction, arrest authority, ability to seek and execute search warrants, and much more. There is case law that governs or limits officers’ investigative authority and ability to use force. Police officers and agencies are also required to comply with a host of administrative rules set out in Title 12, Chapter 9 of the North Carolina Administrative Code. Many of those rules place specific responsibilities on the agency itself or on the chief, like conducting background investigations of all prospective officers (12 NCAC 09B .0102), ensuring that all officers complete annual in-service training and reporting compliance to the state (12 NCAC 09E .0103); and filing certain information with the state when an officer leaves an agency (12 NCAC 09C .0208). Larger agencies may be better able to carry the compliance burden than smaller ones.

The trend of increasing regulation of law enforcement appears likely to continue. Just last year, the General Assembly passed legislation placing new requirements on agencies, such as the requirement to implement a personnel early warning system. (I wrote about that here.) Creating and maintaining such a system is a significant lift, and again, the smallest agencies may be the least likely to be able to bear such an effort.

Local police may be more responsive to local needs. One benefit to small towns in having their own police departments is having more local control and greater responsiveness to local needs. This article from Texas notes that in one small town, almost all calls for service come straight to the chief’s cell phone rather than through dispatch.

A municipality’s interest in having its own local force may be greater when the town is physically located far from the sheriff’s office, which may impact incident response times as well as overall familiarity and responsiveness. (That is apparently a concern in Kenly, which is 20 minutes or so from the sheriff’s office.) A municipality also might place a higher value on having its own police department when there are disagreements between town leaders and county leaders, or when the town has very different needs and interests than other parts of the county. For example, some towns where tourism is a major economic driver may want a certain approach to policing, while other areas of the county may have different law enforcement priorities.

Interlocal agreements can help address some of these local concerns, for example by designating a certain number of deputies to patrol the city, or by listing functions that the deputies will perform. But the deputies will ultimately be hired and selected by the sheriff, subject to the sheriff’s policies, and loyal to the sheriff, so the city’s level of control inevitably will be limited. The only way for a city to have complete control over the law enforcement function is for the city to have its own police department.

Civic pride. This article about the disappearance of small-town police departments in Minnesota (and the rise of contract arrangements with local sheriffs’ offices) hits on one of the reasons small towns may choose to have police departments: it may make the town feel more substantial. A small town that sees itself as up-and-coming may signal its ambitions by establishing a police department. And a small town that is trying to stave off decline may retain its police department as a source of civic pride.

Conclusion. There’s a lot for small town leaders to think about when it comes to policing. The challenges facing small town police departments are likely to grow, not shrink, in the years to come. That doesn’t mean all small towns should get out of the policing business. A town that is growing, or has a great chief, or has local needs that wouldn’t be well-served by the sheriff’s office may want to have its own department. Some towns may find creative solutions to help address the compliance burden of having a police department, perhaps by sharing administrative costs regionally. But other towns should be aware that having a police department is not required, and that there are other options for providing law enforcement services to their residents.