The fictitious Mayberry Sheriff’s Office isn’t too different from many of Kentucky’s law enforcement agencies in terms of size. In present day Kentucky, 148 law enforcement agencies have five or fewer officers. That figure represents 36.6 percent of the state’s 404 law enforcement agencies. While their numbers are small, the crime those officers deal with is no different from what one would find in larger cities.
On a sun-splashed, warm mid-June morning, Hickman Police Chief Tony Grogan spotted Alvin, a middle-aged man whom he has known for years. Without a second thought, the chief walks up and greets him as one would greet an old friend. The two exchange a few moments of good-natured banter before Alvin heads off on his daily rounds.
The chief – whose department has five officers – turns, with a half-cocked grin and says, “He’s a good guy. I’ve arrested him several times on alcohol-intoxication charges, but he’s a good guy, with a few issues.”
Grogan said those types of interactions are commonplace in his city of about 2,200 residents, located a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, in Kentucky’s most western county of Fulton.
More Than a Number
Policing in a small-town setting requires many things, including solid crime-fighting skills, interpersonal communication, thick skin and the ability to adapt quickly to the needs of the agency and community, Grogan said.
“Building relationships is a huge deal for me,” Grogan said. “We cannot function without them. We don’t get any witnesses … we don’t get anything. I serve a community and people who really need help. It means a lot to me. It’s been that way for my entire 20-year career.”
Some 125 miles east sits Dawson Springs, a community of 2,700, located in Hopkins and Caldwell counties. Brook Dixon is chief of the four-person police department. He shares Grogan’s view.
“One of the major things is you get to build close relationships with the people you serve,” Dixon said. “Many times, in larger departments, the public becomes a number as opposed to a name. Here, you can build those relationships with residents and businesses, so they know you by name. It’s helpful in gathering information and making the community safer.”
Dixon said when he is looking to hire a new officer, he looks for one who understands the community-first approach.
“We want to be involved in the schools and involved with the kids,” the chief said. “I want them to be out in the community; I want the kids to see us and wave to us.”
Owen County Sheriff Mark Bess said he learned quickly the importance of the community knowing and trusting the members of his office.
“When I first was elected, one of my deputies told me the locals like the sheriff’s office to work the burglaries because they know and trust us,” Bess, a retired Kentucky State Police trooper, said. “We have had a lot of success with those cases because my guys know the community and everybody knows them. I think it helps law enforcement to have that kind of rapport with the community.”
One of the keys to building relationships is being seen in the community, and many smaller agencies are finding it difficult to be seen on a 24/7 basis.
Many small police agencies throughout the state do not have the staff to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“That’s the biggest problem in most small agencies,” Bess said. “We have a three- or four-hour gap where we don’t have road coverage, but we have an on-call deputy. We try to do the best we can with coverage, and it’s hard to do with the limited number of people we have.”
The same is true for the Ferguson Police Department, a city of about 950 people located in Pulaski County, just south of Somerset in southern Kentucky.
“We work 16-hour days,” Police Chief Anthony Phillips said of his three-person department. “The eight hours we don’t have coverage, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office covers for us.”
Bess’s agency, which has four sworn deputies, has entered into partnerships with surrounding agencies to provide help when the need arises.
“We haven’t had the need to do it very often,” Bess said. “My first day in office, we had a domestic start in Georgetown, and the people fled up here. We met two Georgetown officers and (the agreement) worked like it was supposed to.”
For the most part, residents understand, but at the same time, the lack of 24-hour coverage is a sore spot at times, Phillips said.
“I do feel like sometimes residents get a little frustrated or aggravated when we don’t have someone on-duty in the city,” Phillips said. “Being a small department, finances become an issue, but that is [typical] with any department. But generally, the public understands we cannot work 24 hours a day.”
Rockcastle County Sheriff Mike Peters, whose agency employs five deputies, said his department came up with a unique way of providing coverage in a county of approximately 17,000 people.
“We have road coverage from 8 a.m. until midnight,” Peters said. “From midnight until 8, there is an on-call deputy for four hours and another deputy will be on call from 4 a.m. until 8.”
Hickman’s Grogan said his department does its best to provide daylong coverage, but depending on staffing shortages, it is not always possible.
“It is a struggle,” Grogan said. “Because of our numbers, I call it 95 percent of 24/7. Sometimes, there could be an hour-long or more gap (in police coverage). It’s been much worse in the past.”
In Lewis County, Sheriff Johnny Bivens said his office of five sworn deputies manages to provide 24/7 coverage, but it isn’t an easy feat.
“We have four road deputies, and they know when they come in they’re going to have to bust their tail for eight or 10 hours,” Bivens said. “I also work the road, and I interact with a lot of people. It’s hectic – it stretches you thin with just four deputies and the size of our county. Being a small agency, funds are limited, but we do the job.”
Given the limitations of smaller agencies in terms of 24/7 coverage and other aspects of law enforcement, many have fostered solid working relationships with neighboring law enforcement agencies.
“The good thing is we have a lot of good partnerships and mutual-aid agreements with other agencies,” Dixon said. “You cannot have the mindset that this is my little city, and I will handle it. If you do, it could hurt a relationship, which could benefit you in the end.”
For a town like Dawson Springs, those relationships are necessary, especially when the only officer on duty has to transport someone to the county lockup.
“Our jail is in Madisonville,” he said. “If we have to take somebody to jail, we’re gone for 45 minutes, minimum. That leaves our town uncovered. Therefore, if you make the other agencies mad because you don’t want them here because, ‘It’s my city, by gosh,’ the public is going to look at you and say, ‘Did you have somebody helping?’”
Just the presence of other law enforcement, whether it be deputies or state troopers, is a win-win situation, Dixon said.
“That makes all the dopers nervous,” he joked. “The toilets start flushing because they know somebody is coming. We want them to be nervous.”
While cultivating relationships is vital for any police agency, keeping the community safe is the heart of law enforcement agencies.
“In 2016, we had more than 7,200 calls to 911 for the sheriff’s office,” Peters said. “We have four deputies responding to all the calls. That doesn’t include the number of times we’re stopped on the street, calls on personal cell phones or calls to the office.”
Like its big-city counterparts, smaller agencies are knee-deep in the battle against drugs.
“Drugs are the root of all evil, and it leads to domestic violence, motor-vehicle accidents and other things,” Bivens said of his northeastern Kentucky county. “We’ve seen an uptick in methamphetamines like we haven’t seen before. They are calling it ICE. It’s not on the level like flakka. We had an issue with it in the past, but it still makes (people) crazy, and they stay up for days at a time, and the user is constantly chasing it for the next high.”
Grogan called the drug scene in his area a “subculture.” However, because Hickman is such a small city, it is difficult getting residents to turn against one another.
“They’re not going to tell on their neighbor unless they feel comfortable with the officer,” Grogan said.
Drugs like crack, synthetics, heroin, meth and pills are all part of that culture, the chief said.
“Heroin has made a big push back into our area,” Grogan said. “We also see a lot of pills; especially within the elderly community. They can’t afford to live a normal life, so they end up trying to sell pills to supplement their income, and it is a sad situation.”
Dixon said sometimes cracking down on those who violate the law repeatedly will eventually lead to the bad guy moving to another area.
“As the manager of the city’s safety and security, what I’ve had to do is come up with a philosophy that I will have to pester them so much that they’ll go somewhere else,” he said. “If I have to push them out of here to make my residents safer, then that’s what I have to do.”
Not all small-town crime is drug-related. Many communities see spikes in crimes like theft and burglary during certain times of the year, Ferguson’s Phillips said.
Because of Ferguson’s close proximity to recreational water spots, the three-person police department keeps busy with petty-type crime, especially during the summer months.
“There is a lot of rental property in Ferguson,” Phillips said. “We have a few theft complaints like any community would. We also have domestics, mostly at the rental properties.”
Phillips said when the weather turns warmer, the area, in general, sees a higher volume of traffic “because what we call the “Ohio Navy” comes down during the summer months,” referring to vacationers visiting the Lake Cumberland area from the Buckeye State.
“During the summer, we do have more traffic out, and there are a few more accidents we work,” he said.
Bess said his agency receives a myriad of calls, which are not emergencies, but his office still handles them.
“We’ll have cows in the road or dog-barking complaints and things of that nature,” Bess said. “It’s just part of it, and it’s always been that way.”
Peters took it a step further, saying residents sometimes are quick to call without using sound judgment about whether the call truly is an emergency.
“They think we’re here to cure all of their problems,” Peters said. “People don’t want to take responsibility for their own lives. We get calls from people who say, ‘I have an out-of-control 7-year-old, and I need a deputy.’ What is the deputy supposed to do with a 7-year-old? You cannot explain to the person we’re not here to raise your child or teach them what you should have been teaching them from birth. It’s aggravating to get complaints like those. It almost seems commonsense is like a nickel candy bar nowadays.”
Today’s small-agency policing is very different from Andy Taylor and Barney Fife and the good folks of Mayberry, but it has its similarities, Phillips said.
“We are very approachable with the community,” he said. “If I am out patrolling, it’s a nice day outside, and I see someone sitting on their front porch, I might stop and talk with them for a little bit. I ask ‘What’s going on?’ With KSP, it didn’t happen a whole lot because we were too busy running here and there answering calls in a three-county area.”
In truth, the training and professionalism of today’s law enforcement community is anything but Mayberry.
“It used to be the case,” Bess said. “It’s not that way anymore because all of the deputies are Department of Criminal Justice Training graduates. The training is excellent from DOCJT. The guys do a good job and solve a lot of cases, and the residents are confident in the sheriff’s office. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s very rewarding serving your community.”