Reaching Rural Police: Challenges, Implications, and Applications


(Video & Handout)


The current spotlight on policing and law enforcement issues is focused mainly on urban departments rather than rural areas. Ironically, the majority of police agencies across the nation are not in large cities, but small or rural towns. In 2013, 71% of all police departments served jurisdictions of fewer than 10,000 residents, and 30% served communities of less than 2,500 residents. About half of law enforcement departments have fewer than ten officers (Weisner et al., 2020).

The U.S. Census Bureau (2016) defines rural areas as less dense and sparsely populated than urban areas. Ninety-seven percent of the United States’ landmass is rural. About one-fifth of the population, sixty million people, inhabit rural areas; many are employed in agriculture, forestry, mining, and manufacturing, sectors that are plagued by declining job opportunities. Rural areas tend to be impoverished and do not have the tax base to fund social programs, including police and public safety adequately. As a result, rural agencies are underfunded, understaffed, often undertrained, and lack the necessary equipment. (Ricciardelli, 2012). Rural agencies face challenges in training opportunities, access to resources, types of crimes, interaction with citizens, degree of scrutiny, inferior technology, and mutual aid access, and cooperating overlapping jurisdictions e.g. Native American, federal and local.
Rural areas are often characterized by conservative values, aversion to government interference and authority, a tendency to exert social control among their own, and higher gun ownership that urban areas. Crimes related to wildlife, agriculture, and hate groups are common. Of necessity, rural police departments tend to have a unique culture and way of doing things depending on local history, demographics, size, and budget. (Weisheit et al, 1994).

In addition, because rural agencies are generally spread over large geographical areas and sparsely populated areas, response times are measured not in minutes, but hours. With few resources and more area to cover, they are spread thin. Consequently, big city solutions to policing issues are often not relevant to small town and rural police departments.

A sheriff’s deputy explains: “When our department goes to trainings in the big cities we just sit there. What they are teaching is not relevant to our daily operations. They have departments for every job. In rural policing we see and touch it all. Any of us could be first on scene at a traffic collision or a homicide. We’re search and rescue, the coroner, the victim advocate at the scene of domestic violence, the family therapist, the sex crimes investigator, and the ones who evacuate people from wildfires.”

Although the study of rural agencies has been largely neglected, it is essential as the profession faces upheaval. Rural policing is plagued by a lack of material resources, limited staffing, and vast response areas with limited back up. Rural officers also face mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and suicidal ideation similar to urban officers. These issues may be exacerbated by isolation, cultural barriers, and unique organizational expectations. Geographical location and long shifts often limit access to mental health services. Emerging advances and ongoing research in interventions such as telehealth and existing treatment modalities such as peer-support groups and critical incident stress management (CISM) may prove to be a bridge in closing the gap for this underserved population.
The purpose of this paper, while not comprehensive in addressing the myriad issues that are relevant to rural policing, will elucidate the stressors unique to rural law enforcement agencies and the peace officers who serve in them. Additionally, methods to increase resiliency and stress management will be proposed.

– Ricciardelli, R. (2018). “Risk it out, risk it out”: Occupational and organizational stresses in rural policing. Police Quarterly, 21(4), 415-439.
– U.S. Census Bureau (2016). New census data shows differences between urban and rural populations.
– Weisheit, R. A., Falcone, D. A., & Wells, L. E. (1994). Crime and Policing in rural and Small-Town America: an overview of the Issues. National Institute of Justice Rural Crime and Rural Policing, 2(2).
– Weisner, L., Otto, H. D., & Adams, S. (2020). Issues in Policing Rural Areas: A Review of the Literature. Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Learning Objectives:

Upon completion, participants will be able to
  • To be able to identify five challenges faced by rural law enforcement .
  • Describe five implications of the challenges.
  • Identify three specific applications to help remedy the challenges.