On May 25, George Floyd breathed his last as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for seven minutes and 46 seconds. In the following weeks, massive worldwide protests over his death focused attention on police brutality and racism.
Sadly, George Floyd isn’t the only human being to have his life wrongly and viciously taken by a police officer. The deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, and similar tragedies in other cities have ignited anger—and a demand for accountability—unprecedented in its scope and duration in the history of American police.
Still, one does not have to look far into the past to see similar historic events leading to massive protests police brutality. In the 1960s, social disorder resulting from protests, marches and rioting resulted in repeated physical showdowns between the police and citizens.
Amplified by the voices of the millions of people marching for justice, calls for police reform are beginning to gain momentum. From President Donald Trump’s superficial executive order to guide reforms, to Minneapolis City Council members gathering to assert an “end” to the Minneapolis Police Department, to the Police Reform Bill passed by House Democrats, police accountability will hopefully now be on the table for many police agencies.
However, while the headlines focus on the actions of officers in large American cities, ranging from Minneapolis, a city with nearly 1,000 sworn officers, or New York City, with over 35,000 sworn officers, we need to remind ourselves that there are close to 18,000 police departments throughout the United States.
Many of them are small: police departments that employ 10 or fewer officers are the most common type of police agency in the country. Some police agencies have just one police officer providing service to 500-1,000 citizens.
They should be held to the same standard as the large urban departments we so frequently hear about.
Focusing just on the larger urban departments provides an inaccurate perception of American policing.
The pressures faced by smaller agencies can be enormous. Some departments have closed, leaving towns to be patrolled by county or state agencies that have also lost resources over the past 10 years.
Policing in small or rural police agencies often looks different, compared to large urban departments.
In rural areas, police are likely to know community members and offenders. The officer will also likely be known by the wider community. Because these close social ties, rural agencies may use policing styles that are more favorable to citizens, and it would be expected that residents would be more supportive of the police compared to urban departments.
Unique environment aside, these agencies are not immune to police misconduct and should be included in the conversation about reform and accountability—along with a recognition of the special character and challenges of small-town policing.
For example, the informal nature of police work in rural areas can reduce the emphasis on bureaucratic procedures related to police accountability. Detailed policies on use of force or police pursuits might be lacking.
Moreover, regular supervision of police officers may be absent due to the belief they are already being held accountable through the close social ties with the community. When misconduct does occur, there may not be a formal investigation into that officer, because a citizen complaint system does not exist.
For these reasons, it should not be the case that some agencies are expected to reform, while others operate with the sense that accountability and reform is not necessary. It is important that police agencies become proactive not only to reduce crime, but to also improve accountability whether they are large or small.
There are plenty of evidence-based practices small rural agencies can utilize to be even more responsive to the environment they operate it.
In terms of accountability, it is important for agencies with a limited framework of accountability to strengthen policy, training, supervision, and review.
As we’ve learned too many times before, what’s missing within a police agency whether it be policy or supervision, can have devastating consequences.
Police accountability doesn’t have to be here and there; it should be everywhere.
Thomas Mrozla is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of South Dakota. He welcomes comments from readers.