Rural police struggle to recruit amid poor pay and public perception

Attracting recruits to work for rural police departments is increasingly difficult, especially as most new officers choose to work in better staffed and better paying urban areas.

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By Shako Liu and Phil McCausland

PRINCETON, Iowa — Some days Brian Carsten will pin his badge on at 9 a.m. and not take it off until well after midnight. It’s the reality of his job as the only full-time police officer in this small town on the border with Illinois.

Every day is different, as the phone is always ringing with reports of domestic disputes, assaults, mental health crises, burglary or even runaway dogs. Carsten, 52, answers those calls largely alone in this town of about 1,000 people — which can be risky when the nearest backup is up to 15 minutes away.

“That's a long time, especially when you're fighting with someone, or you got a high-risk situation,” Carsten said. “You really got to think about that and how you play the call out and how you deal with the person.”

And in his limited free time, Carsten, who has more than three decades of experience in law enforcement, moonlights for a handful of nearby police departments. He earns some extra cash and enjoys the change of pace while supporting small rural police departments that are having trouble recruiting and acquiring up-to-date law enforcement resources and technology as they grapple with budget shortfalls.

Brian Carsten, 52, has more than three decades of experience in law enforcement.Carlos P. Beltran / for NBC News

“I don't know that there's any department out there that says, ‘Man, I have enough officers, and I don't have a problem with hiring officers,’" Carsten said. “The smaller towns that I part time at have the same problem that I'm having.”

Attracting recruits to work for rural police departments is getting increasingly difficult, especially as most new law enforcement officers are choosing to work in urban areas, which tend to pay better and be better staffed.

Police officers earned an average of $56,160 in 2011. That rose to $65,210 in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rural departments, however, struggle to match those salaries.

“I don’t see the younger officers, the newer officers, coming into the smaller towns,” Carsten said, noting that pay disparity was one reason.

The federal government now considers these problems so bad that it has been getting involved.

Anamosa, Iowa.Carlos P. Beltran / for NBC News

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Over the spring and summer, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS — an agency under the Justice Department that supports community policing — conducted a series of listening sessions with rural law enforcement leaders in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, Iowa and Montana to help them identify the needs of their departments.

COPS Director Phil Keith said Attorney General William Barr had directed him to spend more time in rural communities to focus on issues that affect them. He said antiquated technology and the methamphetamine epidemic are major issues, but the biggest problem may be just having enough qualified officers to do the job.

“The competition for deputies and police officers is extremely high,” he said. “There is a general trend where many rural agencies are losing law enforcement staff to larger communities because of benefits and salaries, and the tax base in the rural areas just can’t grow.”

COPS is working to help these departments apply for grants and get access to a number of programs, and they’re planning to hold more listening sessions in Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and North Dakota over the next few months.

Officers at a scene where a man was spotted drinking in a parking lot in Anamosa, Iowa. Carlos P. Beltran

Most troubling to Keith is that many rural departments didn’t have access to bulletproof vests, were working with faulty radios and had no means to update basic technology. He said COPS was working on a new mandate that grants will go to those most in need — not those who submit the best applications.

“We can’t just reward those who can afford to pay grant writers to write polished applications,” he said.

Still, amid headlines of officer-involved shootings, of officers being found guilty of murder and of charges of police corruption, law enforcement agencies are struggling to convince potential recruits that policing is a career worth pursuing, Carsten said.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that works to improve the professionalism of policing, said that 36 percent of its members reported a significant decline in applications for police officer positions over the past five years. Another 27 percent said they’d seen at least a slight decline.

Greg Graver, 45, has served as the sheriff of Jones County in Iowa for eight years. His department, which includes 10 deputies, serves about 14,000 people across 577 square miles and 850 miles of county roads.

Officer Miller searches for a trespassing suspect in rural Anamosa, Iowa.Carlos P. Beltran / for NBC News

The trouble — as he told the Gazette in Cedar Rapids — is that he has a lot of land to cover, but few people to do it.

“We're still a rural county,” Graver said. “You have limited tax base that you can work off, and there's several county departments that are vying for this money. If the county had the money available to us, then we could certainly add six or seven deputy sheriffs.”

That’s a concern because there aren’t enough police officers to address the country’s growing population. A Department of Justice report found that the number of officers per capita dropped by about 11 percent from 1997 to 2016, from 2.43 to 2.17 officers per 1,000 residents.

In Iowa, that number is even lower.

Tim Miller was recently hired as a deputy sheriff in Jones County. Because of the few number of officers, he said he feels like a hindrance sometimes, as they struggle to answer calls coming in from across the county.

“You do have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” Miller said, adding that he had to know traffic and motor vehicle law.

“Know when you can or cannot enter into a vehicle to search. Then it comes to like a burglary or theft, we can't just take the report and say, ‘Hey, we're going to hand you over to the investigation unit.’ We are the investigation unit. We are the arson unit. We're the medical unit.”

It’s those stressors and other concerns — work-related alcoholism, the rising suicide rate among officers and the high rate of divorce in policing — that has Graver, a career officer, worried that his three children might consider following in his footsteps.

“I would never tell my kid, no,” Graver said. “I will support whatever my children's decision is. Would it be the career path that I would pick for them? I would say it definitely would not be.”

Shako Liu reported from Iowa, and Phil McCausland reported from New York.