The small town of Goodhue, Minnesota is facing a common problem across the United States: A police officer shortage. In late August, with quotas of vacancies significantly high, Police Chief Josh Smith and his team of officers resigned, leading the town’s City Council to shutter its police force. Across the country, small towns with populations of around 1,000 up to 200,000 have disbanded policing since 1972. In the past two years, at least 12 others have done the same.
The Human Executive Resource Forum, a Washington D.C. think tank, conducted a survey of almost 200 police agencies and found that the number of officers resigning had increased significantly since 2019 — the year before the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder — by 47% and retirements had gone up by 19%. These numbers represent only those agencies affiliated with PERF — a fraction of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the nation.
Compounding the exit of veteran officers is the fact that young people are increasingly unwilling to go through the months of training necessary for police work. Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said, “Fewer people are applying to be police officers, and more officers are retiring or resigning at a tremendous rate. There’s a shortage of police officers across the country.”
Agencies of all sizes are struggling to fill positions, but the issue is especially dire in smaller communities that cannot match the pay and perks of bigger cities. The Rice University study on police dissolution found that, generally, crime rates have stayed the same in towns that have ditched their departments. Leaders of towns such as Washburn, Illinois, and Lott, Texas, which have both dissolved their departments in recent years, have reported favorable results with satisfactory response times from local law enforcement.
The town of Goodhue is now under contract with Goodhue County for law enforcement duties while Sheriff Marty Kelly attempts to fill several vacancies in his department. He said he currently has around 10 who have applied and recognizes that in order to reach full staffing, he will have to hire personnel from other places, creating more vacancies elsewhere. “We are robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “And we’re not alone.”
Mayor Steve Forney of Washburn, which disbanded its department this year, summed up the struggle small towns are facing well. “It’s scary,” he said. “There really is a national police officer shortage.”