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Tight Times Force Small Towns To Cut Police Services

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Tight Times Force Small Towns To Cut Police Services

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Tight Times Force Small Towns To Cut Police Services

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As big cities like Baltimore look for ways to keep ex-cons employed, smaller communities are finding it hard to keep their cops on the job. The difficult economy has forced many police departments in a growing number of small towns to close.

Gail Banzet, of member station KOSU, has this story.

GAIL BANZET: Creek County, Oklahoma, is big - about 950 square miles. But its population is small: 70,000. On a recent weekday, Corporal Allen Harwood patrolled the open roads.

Corporal ALLEN HARWOOD: This is going to be a larceny call. I believe its going to be larceny of copper - from the details Ive been given.

BANZET: Stray dogs, domestic disturbances, even the occasional murder theyre all part of his job description. But in this rural county, finding where you need to go isnt always easy.

Unidentified Man: I guess so south from the Dollar General, and it loops around before it takes another curve, and that curve goes into Payne County East -right there at that curve.

BANZET: On this shift, Harwood is one of just three deputies working. Even in emergency situations, it can take a half-hour to respond to a call. In Oklahoma, two-thirds of all law enforcement agencies have five or fewer officers. At least 10 police departments in this state have closed in the past year.

Ms. MYLORA TUTTLE (Mayor, Depew, Oklahoma): The economy here is so bad that its just - we have no possibility for generating income.

BANZET: Thats Mylora Tuttle, the mayor of Depew, a community outside Tulsa. The town gave up its two policemen more than a year ago because of money. Now, the policing falls to the Creek County Sheriffs Department. But Corporal Harwood says they havent added any extra deputies.

Cpl. HARWOOD: We try to patrol the area more. The problem is, were shorthanded ourselves. When they dont have a police department, it adds more to our patrol.

BANZET: So in Depew, many city ordinances are no longer enforced. Vandalism is on the rise, and the towns only bank closed in June because of a lack of security. Some residents, like Fred Jackson, worry Depew is about to become a ghost town.

Mr. FRED JACKSON: You see young kids running around at night with no curfew to adhere to. When you see them out running around after dark like that, you wonder what theyre up to. It makes you kind of wish you had a policeman on duty.

BANZET: Its not just an Oklahoma problem. In Shepherd, Texas, city leaders closed their small police department last year. The former chief, Chris Simmons, says illegal drugs have become an issue.

Mr. CHRIS SIMMONS (Former Chief, Shepherd Police Department): I was driving past City Hall one timeh and they were standing out in the parking lot - dealing right there in the parking lot of City Hall.

BANZET: The International Association of Chiefs of Police says whats happening in small communities is worrisome. The associations John Firman says the fabric of American policing was built on small, rural agencies. But now, thats changing.

Mr. JOHN FIRMAN (International Association of Chiefs of Police): Right now in America, police are losing officers at a rate that dips them below a threshold of being able to keep their citizens and their officers safe.

BANZET: In Pennsylvania, the state police have taken over 14 city departments in the past year. In Washington state, the problem is worse. Some cities cant afford to pay county sheriffs for patrols. Don Pierce, with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, says even though rural residents have learned to fend for themselves, people in more populated communities now have to do the same.

Mr. DON PIERCE (Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs): And Im very concerned about how thats going to work out. I expect that there will be some horror stories before too long.

BANZET: Currently, there are no official numbers on how many small city agencies have closed nationwide. But law enforcement officials hope to avoid those horror stories even though fewer cops are on the streets.

For NPR News, Im Gail Banzet in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

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