Why officers’ lives depend on dispelling the cliche that ‘nothing ever happens in small towns’

Of the 285 officers shot in 2019, nearly a quarter of them were policing towns with fewer than 11,000 people


There’s an assumption that gritty urban settings drive the losses mourned on Peace Officers Memorial Day each year – and that’s partly true.

But there’s more to the story, and it’s time to dispel the cliché that “nothing ever happens in small towns.”

Barely five weeks into 2019, a Virginia State Trooper was killed in a town of fewer than 8000 residents. Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2019, a brutal day for cops with four officers shot in three states. One was a deputy murdered on a traffic stop in a Texas village with a population of barely 300 people.

The end of a traffic stop that turned into a multi-agency pursuit with a murder suspect in Wheeler County, Ore., population 1357. (Photo/Wheeler County Sheriff's Facebook).
The end of a traffic stop that turned into a multi-agency pursuit with a murder suspect in Wheeler County, Ore., population 1357. (Photo/Wheeler County Sheriff's Facebook).

In the months between, the lives of dozens of other small-town and rural officers were ended or forever altered by violence.

Because I write almost exclusively about issues impacting rural policing, I searched for several years for resources connecting population density and attacks on law enforcement. The FBI’s LEOKA program has a basic breakdown, but it doesn’t go deep enough so last year I began tracking attacks myself, which you can see on this spreadsheet here.

To keep things as simple as possible, I focused on the number of officers shot as a single type of crime simplifies tracking. Plus, it’s hard to argue intent when someone points a gun at a badge and pulls the trigger.

I included any sworn officer – local, state or federal – in the 50 states plus Puerto Rico, acting in an official capacity or clearly targeted for their work if they were off duty. Not included are accidents, suicides or friendly fire unless the shooting occurred because of a felonious action (i.e., blue on blue because of bad marksmanship is a no; blue on blue because two cops are fighting a bad guy and a good guy gets shot too is a yes).

I started with a Google search each morning and cross-referenced what I found with an existing database tracking multiple categories of shootings. Finally, I asked a retired police statistician for help.  

In our world, nothing happens without numbers – not financing, not legislation, not change. Let’s see what the numbers say for rural cops in 2019.

NATIONWIDE

  • 285 officers were shot in 2019.
  • 41 (15%) of them died of their wounds.
  • 26 (9%) were saved by ballistic vests.

Now let’s look specifically at places with smaller populations, fewer than 30,000 residents but more than 11,000. (Yes, that’s an arbitrary number, but I had to pick one.)

POPULATION >11,000 to <30,000

  • 30 officers (or 11% of the national total) were shot in 2019.
  • 1 (2% of the total) of those officers died.
  • 1 (4% of the total) was saved by body armor.

The numbers went down.

Let’s make the population smaller again, fewer than 11,000 this time. A lot of officers work in really small places. From watching TV or movies, or even reading the news, we’d expect there would be even fewer incidents.

POPULATION <11,000

  • 63 officers (22% of the national total) were shot in 2019.
  • 10 (24% of the national total) of those officers died.
  • 5  (19% of the national total) were saved by their vests.

Wait, what just happened? The population got smaller and the casualties went down. Then the population got smaller still and they went back up.

What happened is this: the only thing needed for bad things to happen is people. It only takes one to pull a trigger. There are people everywhere an officer could possibly work, even in places so small that I had to check maps and multiple sources to find population numbers. (I learned a new term doing this: when you live somewhere so small it doesn’t have boundaries, it’s a “census-designated place.”)

I know that one year’s data isn’t proof of anything, so I’ve already started a new sheet for 2020. My hope is that with enough information over time maybe some of the big dogs like BJA or the COPS Office will be interested enough to pursue these numbers (or the FBI will add another table to LEOKA!).

The risks rural cops face

In the meantime, what do these numbers tell us?

It tells us that officers working in small towns and remote areas, with fewer resources or backup than urban officers, face substantial risk. A third of the officers shot and more than a quarter of those killed by gunfire fell in small towns and remote places.

It tells us that rural officers need appropriate training and equipment. Nearly a quarter of 2019 vest saves happened in the areas I tracked, yet there are still places where officers patrol without body armor. Far too many rural officers work with inadequate or outdated vests, and without basics taken for granted in cities, like tacmed training or tourniquets.

It doesn’t tell us why the death rate spiked in the more sparsely populated areas. Maybe it’s a fluke. Next year’s data will provide a tiny bit more insight, and the year after that, more still.

If pressed for answers now, I would start by asking: Can we quantify the difference it makes when most rural officers work without backup? Is a suspect more likely to shoot when an officer responds alone? A solo officer has no one to summon aid when they cannot (assuming there’s radio coverage where they fall), and no one to pack their wounds or ratchet a tourniquet they can’t reach.

Does it make a difference that rural officers often work where the "Golden Hour" doesn’t exist? It seems intuitive that distance from sophisticated trauma care would have a negative impact. Even when a wounded officer gets aid relatively quickly, long transport times are common where it may be hundreds of miles to advanced care, perhaps with a stop in between at a small critical access hospital for stabilizing. 

Does the location influence the kind of weapon used? Rifles are as common as pickup trucks in the country, and soft vests don’t help with those. I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

A little bit of information just raises more questions, so we have to be sure that the right questions are asked. The answers will be critical to make the case for improved training and increased funding for equipment, staffing and communications for rural officers.

Twenty-eight of the 97 officers shot so far in 2020 are from places with populations smaller than 30,000. Of the 15 who have been killed by gunfire as of May 8, four of those were rural officers.

Gaining a realistic view of the risks those officers faced is critical. We start here, by counting them because they matter.

Thanks to Melody Tucker for assistance with the statistical analysis.

NEXT: Learning from deadly LE encounters in rural America

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