The Small Agency Problem in American Policing

64 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2023 Last revised: 14 Aug 2023

Date Written: June 30, 2023

Abstract

Although legal scholars have over the years developed an increasingly sophisticated account of policing in the largest cities, they have largely overlooked the thousands of small departments that serve rural areas and small towns. As this paper makes clear, small agencies are hardly immune from the various problems that plague modern policing. But their sheer number—and relative obscurity—has made it difficult to get a handle on the magnitude of the difficulties they present, or the ways in which familiar reform proposals might need to look different in America’s small towns.

This paper begins to fill this gap. It does so by blending together empirical analysis of various dimensions of small-agency policing, with in-depth case studies that add much-needed texture to the patterns that the data reveal. It argues that the problems of small-town policing differ in important ways from those that plague big-city police, and that there are predictable patterns that explain when and why small agencies are likely to go astray. In particular, it shows that small agencies are susceptible to two types of systemic failures—those that reflect the inherent limitations of small-town political processes, and those that are driven by the capacity constraints that some small governments face. It then draws on the data and case studies to provide at least a preliminary sense of how prevalent these problems are likely to be.

This paper concludes with the policy implications that follow from this richer and more nuanced account of small-town and rural police. It begins with the oft-made suggestion that small agencies be made to “consolidate” with one another or simply dissolve, and it explains why consolidation is not only highly unlikely, but also potentially counter-productive. It argues that states should instead pursue two parallel buckets of reforms, the first aimed at equalizing the dramatic disparities in police funding across municipalities, and the second focused on a set of regulatory measures designed to address specific small agency harms.

Keywords: policing, criminal justice, police reform, rural, small-town, local government law

Suggested Citation

Ponomarenko, Maria, The Small Agency Problem in American Policing (June 30, 2023). New York University Law Review, Vol. 98 (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4537989

Maria Ponomarenko (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

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