America’s Small Towns Disbanding Police Forces Amid Hiring Woes

GOODHUE, Minnesota – Several small towns across America are disbanding their police forces due to significant hiring difficulties. Goodhue Police Chief Josh Smith issued a warning to the town’s City Council, stating that without improved pay and benefits, recruiting new officers would be impossible. When his concerns were not addressed, Smith resigned, along with the remaining officers. As a result, the Minnesota town of Goodhue, with a population of 1,300, closed its police force at the end of August.

The shortage of police officers in the United States can largely be attributed to the combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened criticism of law enforcement following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020. Small towns across states like Minnesota, Maine, Ohio, and Texas are struggling to fill vacant positions, leading to the disbanding of their police departments. In fact, between 1972 and 2017, at least 521 towns and cities with populations ranging from 1,000 to 200,000 disbanded their police forces, according to a 2022 study by Rice University Professor of Economics Richard T. Boylan. Furthermore, over the past two years alone, at least 12 small towns have dissolved their police departments.

One example is the town of Goodhue in Goodhue County, Minnesota. The county has now taken over law enforcement duties in the town while Sheriff Marty Kelly attempts to fill four vacancies in his own department. Despite having around 10 applicants for these positions, it falls short compared to the 35 applicants for one open position in 2019.

The root of the problem lies in the exodus from law enforcement. Officer resignations increased by 47% last year compared to 2019, and retirements rose by 19%, according to a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum. This trend, along with a decline in the number of young people entering the profession, create a shortage of police officers throughout the country.

Agencies of all sizes are facing challenges in filling open positions, especially smaller communities with limited resources to provide competitive pay and incentives. Morris, Minnesota dissolved its police department last year due to the continuous departure of officers, leaving the town with just two officers. Limestone, Maine, and Van Buren both disbanded their police departments in recent years as well. Remarkably, the Rice University study found that the crime rates in towns that dropped their police departments remained unchanged, with town leaders expressing satisfaction with the new arrangements.

For instance, Washburn, Illinois dissolved its own department in 2021, allowing the county to take over law enforcement duties. Washburn’s mayor, Steve Forney, states that the transition has been seamless, with the sheriff’s department providing an effective and responsive service. Similarly, Lott, Texas disbanded its department last year due to financial difficulties but has experienced low crime rates and satisfactory response times with county deputies patrolling the town.

Goodhue, located 65 miles south of Minneapolis, has long been struggling to recruit and retain officers. Despite pay increases and raises, Chief Josh Smith addressed the City Council, emphasizing the lack of incentive for officers to work in a small town with starting salaries significantly lower than those offered by Goodhue County. After Smith’s resignation, all remaining full-time and part-time employees also quit. The town has agreed to pay the county for law enforcement services and will decide whether to extend the contract in the future.

Residents like Ron Goebel, a retired accountant, have some confidence in the county’s abilities to police the town adequately. Additionally, they believe that community members can contribute to keeping the town safe. However, Goebel expresses concerns about the broader implications of losing essential town services, such as schools, businesses, and now, a police force.