Small, rural towns need seat at police reform table

Gov. Baker asked the Massachusetts Legislature to amend an expansive police reform bill last week, citing the bill’s ban on facial recognition technology. Despite his refusal to sign the bill in its current form, Gov. Baker agrees with legislators on many other measures, such as new training standards. The Bay State’s efforts to restore public trust in police are commendable, but state officials left out a crucial component: rural police departments.
While the debate over facial recognition technology rages in Boston, towns in Western Massachusetts are struggling to pay for new brakes in police cruisers. Higher training standards are a step in the right direction, but small departments often don’t have enough officers to cover shifts while other officers are in class. And at the core of this disconnect, urban activists and journalists characterize police departments as structurally broken and officers as occupying militants, whereas small town residents tend to see police officers as friends and neighbors.
Boston’s obliviousness to what goes on west of Worcester is undermining the importance of police reform in small towns. The same is true across New England. As a result, rural officials struggle to see how police reform is relevant to their communities.
Unfortunately, it is. A number of recent studies suggest that police misconduct and excessive force are serious problems in urban and rural communities alike. A study by FiveThirtyEight found that since 2018, police have killed as many people in rural areas as they have in cities. This comes as a shock when you consider that more than twice as many people live in urban areas as rural. Rural officers also arrest civilians more frequently, which is correlated with increased use of force. Vera Institute of Justice found that arrests in rural areas have increased by 26% since 2013 while they dropped by 22% in urban areas over the same period.
Excessive force is only a serious problem with a minority of police officers — particularly those who have records of misconduct. But that small group has a huge impact. Such incidents erode trust between communities and the officers who serve them. They also lead to costly litigation.
This should trouble small town residents. Ultimately, towns are liable for their officers’ actions, and when aggrieved civilians turn to litigation, it’s taxpayers who are on the hook to pay, not police officers.
Since 2010, New Hampshire towns have paid more than $3.3 million in settlements over police misconduct. Some of those settlements were over police shootings and extreme force, but many resulted from officers simply detaining citizens improperly. These legal costs burden local budgets considerably. New London, a town of 4,300, paid $70,000 to settle a lawsuit against its police department, which was equivalent to 6.3% of its total police budget.
These lawsuits are bleeding small towns dry. Few towns even have the resources to pay for occasional training, let alone bankrolling payouts for victims of police brutality. The problem is so severe that some towns are at risk of losing their police departments all together. If rural police departments are to survive, local communities must be willing to adopt strategies that will stem the tide of litigation. The best way to do that is police reform.
Towns can make a lot of progress themselves. Select boards should review their police union contracts to make sure that there are no clauses that limit disciplinary procedures. For example, union contracts usually dictate that out-of-town lawyers or arbitrators have final say over disciplinary matters. That power should reside with the community affected by the conflict.
This change matters; one study published in the American Bar Association’s Journal of Labor & Employment Law found that arbitrators reinstated nearly half of the police officers who were fired between 2011 and 2015. Police chiefs broadly support such reforms.
But towns should not have to face these challenges alone. When policymakers propose sweeping legislation, state officials need to give small towns a seat at the table. Conversations about raising the bar of the policing profession statewide must be accompanied by considerations of devoting more resources to underfunded rural departments. Massachusetts legislators should keep this in mind while hashing out the details of their bill.

Devon Kurtz is the head of criminal justice policy at the Cicero Institute. He is from Westfield.

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