Small towns adjusting to life without a police department

2012-06-29T08:00:00Z Small towns adjusting to life without a police departmentMcClatchy Tribune News Service
June 29, 2012 8:00 am  • 

KEMP, Texas - It's a crime what City Hall did last month, some residents of this town say.

But eliminating the entire police department - chief and all - is just a sign of these penny-pinching times, according to law enforcement experts.

That's little comfort to Cleo Brewer and other townsfolk, many of them retired and living on fixed incomes.

"No one wants to say their town doesn't have a police force. It's an invitation for trouble," said Brewer, owner of the Western Cafe, a popular eatery that has been tempting patrons with its catfish plate specials for 25 years.

Other residents of this relatively quiet town of 1,100 say the city simply had no choice.

For several years now across the country, rural towns like Kemp have been disbanding their police departments because they can't afford them anymore.

While the overall number of law enforcement agencies in the nation went up from 2004 to 2008 - the latest years for which national statistics were available - smaller departments with fewer than 10 officers dipped about 2.3 percent, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The trend is troubling to some experts, who say residents in towns without a police force typically endure longer response times, particularly for non-emergency calls. The towns also lose a familiar presence.

"When you decide to eliminate your agency, there are going to be consequences," said Dianne Beer-Maxwell, a project manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Virginia.

In some cases, such as in Alto in central East Texas, a town might cut its police department but restore it later. Alto, with a population of about 2,000, axed its department last June and, six months later, reinstated a scaled-down force.

"The larger police departments are not going to go away," said James McLaughlin, general counsel and executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association.

For smaller towns, said McLaughlin, a former chief in Longview and Addison, the decision to ax or scale back police departments often comes down to money and "perceptions."

The small town of Shepherd in southeast Texas, for example, established a police force a few years ago and quickly shut down the one-man operation because the town couldn't afford it.

The question now is whether Kemp will be like Alto and restore its department, or like Shepherd, which remains without one.

"If that (saving money) is the sole reason, how much money will they save?" said McLaughlin. "And what will they gain for that? It's a swap. The citizens ultimately will have to decide whether that was a good swap."

The Kemp Police Department became the latest casualty when the town decided to lay off its five-person force and let the sheriff's department take over patrols.

That happened May 9. Since then, according to sheriff's department spokeswoman Pat Laney, deputies responded to 89 calls through June 8.

During roughly the same period last year, she said, Kemp police officers responded to 166 calls. She said the one-month snapshot doesn't point up any significant problems as far as crime goes.

"Obviously we had to move some personnel around to get people there," she said, noting that the sheriff's department has 98 licensed deputies - and 36 that patrol the county, which includes the larger cities of Forney and Terrell.

Some places that eliminated their police forces saw a sudden rise in vandalism, illegal drugs and other crimes. But city and county officials have said they don't expect that to happen in Kemp.

However, a day after the Kemp City Council disbanded the force, two businesses were burglarized - and some residents are still expressing concern about a future without a police department.

"Why didn't they just cut back?" said Anona Atterton, owner of the Sun Patch, a secondhand clothes and furniture store. "The police officers know this city better than anybody. They know where the illegal drug houses are (and) where the kids play on the streets."

Brewer and many of her regular patrons agreed.

"I think the decision they made was a wrong decision," Brewer said.

Other Kemp residents and business owners, however, said they understand the decision because city officials are scrambling to come up with funds to address all of the town's basic needs. Last summer, because of a drought that exposed the town's aging water system, burst water pipes drained Kemp's water supply and shut down its system for three days.

Now, residents say, they have to swallow an unpleasant choice - no police department or no water.

Pat Hanna, 84, said city officials had to save money somewhere.

"There just comes a time when you've got to make a choice," he said.

Hanna said he believes if the town can get along without a police force for a while, it might be better off in the long run.

Colleen Busby agreed. And Busby happens to be the owner of one of the businesses - Sac-a-Burger - that was burglarized after the police department was shut down.

"I was shocked when they got rid of everybody," Busby said. "But I do support the decision because it came down to: Do you want to get rid of the police department or have water?

"We can't have both. Can we survive without a police department? Yes. Can we survive without water? No."

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