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Rural sheriff's departments struggle with low staffing levels, tightening budgets

Dec 20, 2018 at 5:29 pm
    Jones County Sheriff's Office deputy Derek Denniston talks to a motorist during a traffic stop as he patrols in rural Jones County, Iowa on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    When Jones County Sheriff’s Deputy Michele Gehl starts her shift, she knows that for the most part she’s on her own. Gehl is Jones County’s newest deputy — she joined the agency in July, bringing the office’s total number of sworn officers up to 11 — and she typically is the only deputy on duty during the overnight hours.

    “That’s what we signed up for,” she said. “Ultimately we’re here to help other people and sometimes that means going into situations where you know things can go badly.”

    In rural counties across the state, sheriff’s offices are struggling with low staffing levels, tight budgets and a dwindling pool of qualified applicants. As a result, many smaller offices are only able to staff one deputy per shift, and some are unable to cover a 24-hour-a-day schedule.

    “We have to do our best with what we’ve got,” said Adair County Sheriff Jeff Vandewater, whose office consists of six sworn officers — including him — to cover 570 square miles.

    “It’s a challenge, obviously,” he said. “We just have to make it work as best we can. We can’t have someone on 24 hours a day. We just don’t have the manpower for that, and we can only guarantee one officer per shift. We just don’t have the manpower to do more.”



    According to data compiled in 2017 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, county agencies across the country reported an average of 2.8 officers per 1,000 residents. In Iowa, that average is about 1.7 county officers per 1,000 residents.

    That, however, is not the case for the small, rural sheriff’s offices. According to the Uniform Crime reports, which collected staffing information from more than 13,100 law enforcement agencies in the United States, 53 counties in Iowa operate with 10 or fewer deputies.

    The counties with the smallest sheriff’s offices are Lucas and Ringgold — both in south-central Iowa — with four sworn officers each.

    In addition, 30 counties have sheriff’s offices ranging in size from 11 to 20 sworn officers, and 13 counties have departments staffed with more than 20 officers.

    The largest sheriff’s office in the state, in Polk County, has 142 sworn officers, according to the data.

    Many small-town police departments, however, don’t have nearly as many officers.

    The Uniform Crime data shows 74 police departments in Iowa have 10 or fewer officers. The smallest departments are in Mechanicsville, New Sharon and Princeton, each with one officer.

    On the road


    In smaller offices, such as those in Jones, Adair and Buchanan counties — where deputies are often responding to all manner of incidents alone — officer safety is a constant concern.

    “I worry about being shot,” Sheriff Graver said. “I worry about my officers getting shot. I worry about that every day. And knowing that we are out there on our own, and with what’s going on in society today, we have to be on high alert at all times.”

    officer safety

    In recent years, attacks on officers have gone up, according to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program, which collects data annually from law enforcement agencies across the country through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

    In 2018, according to the report, 49 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed — an increase from the 38 killed the previous year. Of those, 11 officers were killed in ambush situations, and one was killed in an “unprovoked attack.”

    “Officers are being targeted in this country every couple of days,” Graver said, adding that when he started his career in law enforcement 23 years ago, targeted attacks on police were “practically unheard of.”

    “Now it’s a common occurrence, and with the way departments like ours are situated, your backup could be 20 to 30 minutes away or further,” he said.

    Stephen Colbert / The Gazette

    That, Graver said, is why every deputy in his office is equipped like a SWAT officer.

    “When I became sheriff, we outfitted all our cars with tactical vests, Kevlar helmets and rifles,” he said. When heading to a potentially dangerous call, Graver said his deputies are encouraged to stop before they get to the scene and “gear up.”

    “The reason I push for that is that I know how dangerous this job can be,” he said. “I’ve been in those situations myself, and taking that one minute of preparation could make the difference between life or death.”

    None of that gear, however, can outweigh the benefit of having a second officer “to back you up,” Graver said. “I at least have to try to give our officers as much of an advantage as I can so they can handle any situation. But we all know that we’re just one call away from it going tragically wrong.”

    “If you didn’t have fear, you wouldn’t be a normal person,” Deputy Gehl said. “Of course, there have been situations that I have been fearful in, but you have to be able to handle that, set it aside and rely on your training and your experience and trust that you have what it takes to take care of the situation.

    “Any call that I get dispatched to, when I’m driving there, I’m going over in my head the things that could happen when I get there and how I’m going to handle it,” she added.

    “There are some calls that you get that you obviously know have the potential to go badly, but there’s that same risk when you do a random traffic stop, so I think your guard is always up and you’re always thinking about what could happen.”

    Sheriff Vandewater said his Adair County officers are similarly equipped, but he also advocates strong communication skills and scenario-based training.

    “Communication skills are huge,” he said. “It only takes a split second for things to go really wrong, and when you are responding to these situations by yourself, you have to be able to communicate in a way that de-escalates the situation.”

    In addition, Vandewater doubles

    as a firearms instructor and regularly puts his deputies through scenario-based training where they have to practice their decision-making skills. The scenarios cover a variety of real-life decisions his officers might have to make — from deciding which call gets priority to de-escalating heated situations to determining if using force is warranted and necessary.

    Wait in line


    With so few deputies on the road, Graver said it’s not uncommon for his officers to have to triage calls — handling the most emergent calls immediately and leaving the less-urgent calls to sit until an officer is available.

    On average, Graver said his department fields about 5,000 calls annually, “and they just keep going up.”

    “That’s a lot of calls and a lot of ground to cover for a department this small,” he said. “And when you’re running that many calls, and you only have one or two deputies on at a time, you can’t avoid stacking calls. It doesn’t really leave our officers much time to do any sort of proactive work, because we’re running from call to call, from one end of the county to the other.”

    In Buchanan County, Sheriff Bill Wolfgram said his department of 13 sworn officers — including him — fields about 4,500 calls annually, and in Adair County, Sheriff Vandewater said his department sees about 6,700 calls per year.

    In addition, with only one or two deputies covering roughly 570 square miles in Jones County, Graver said area residents know that response time often depends on where in the county those deputies are.

    “We’re going to try to get there as fast as we can if it’s an emergency, but if we’re on the other end of the county, that could take 20 minutes,” he said.

    “I think the public suffers a little bit, too, from us not having the numbers,” he added. “They have to wait longer for law enforcement to arrive, because we don’t have enough people to field all the calls and if we have an emergency that calls for an immediate response, callers two three and four could wait hours for an officer to arrive.”

    Recruitment Woes


    In Sheriff Graver’s mind, the biggest issue is the changing perception that surrounds law enforcement.

    “We all struggle with getting candidates,” he said. “And a lot of it unfortunately has to do with what we’ve seen in the media and how law enforcement has been portrayed. Just to give a comparison, generally before all this, if we were hiring, we’d typically get about 60 applicants. Now, with the last deputy we hired, we had about 19 applicants and about 15 people showed up for testing.”

    Law enforcement agencies have come under increasing scrutiny since 2014 when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Mo. Brown’s death sparked nationwide protests, and in the years that followed, intense media attention has focused on officer-involved shootings and the way law enforcement agencies police black communities.

    Wolfgram agreed with Graver’s take, adding that the nature of the job is also likely a factor.

    “It’ a tough job, with long hours, and it’s hard on people with families,” he said. “You’re on call 24/7, and you’re likely going to work nights and holidays. And now we have this media perception to deal with. That doesn’t appeal to a lot of people.”

    But staffing woes don’t just stem from a lack of candidates, said Nelson Lim, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

    “Every time the economy gets better, (law enforcement agencies) have a problem recruiting,” he told NBC. “It’s like clockwork.”

    A booming job market means more career choices, said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Law enforcement agencies can’t always keep up with perks other professions in the private sector may offer, he said.

    In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the growth rate for “police and detectives” category as “slower than average,” at 4 percent, with the average growth rate for other professions at 7 percent. The bottom tenth-percentile for an officer’s salary is $33,430, according to 2015 federal data.

    There is no easy solution. Rural counties typically have fewer residents, thus a smaller tax base, which means less money for necessary infrastructure and services, including public safety.

    “There is only so much money to go around,” Graver said. “The county can’t spend more than it has coming in.

    “That’s why we, as sheriffs, have to prioritize what is most important, and we have to make our cases to our boards of supervisors as to why we need what we need.”

    Graver said sheriffs are using whatever ways they can to lighten the load.

    For example, many small sheriff’s offices have resorted to using civilians and retired law enforcement officers to handle much of the offices’ civil duties.

    Unlike police departments, sheriff’s offices carry a wide variety of responsibilities that include overseeing and staffing county jails and dispatch centers, processing and serving civil documents such as writs, subpoenas and garnishments, providing court security and transporting prisoners.

    “More and more, we are using civilians and retired officers to handle these duties,” Graver said.

    “That way, we’re keeping our deputies free to patrol and respond to calls because the more deputies we have on the road, the better it is for us and for the community.”

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