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Back to Archives | Back to April 2013 Contents 

Future of Policing in America: Bringing the Voice of Smaller Agencies to the National Dialogue

By Ben Ekelund, Project Manager, Smaller Law Enforcement Agency Program, IACP

drop cap Within the IACP Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police, there is a Smaller Agency Section. The purpose of this section is to represent the interests of law enforcement agencies with fewer than 50 officers or serving populations fewer than 50,000. Working with IACP staff, the Smaller Agency Section participated in a survey and convened a national mini-summit to identify relevant issues facing the smaller agencies and to formulate recommendations that could be put forth in a national policy dialogue to address these concerns.

The Smaller Agency Survey

In February 2012, IACP staff developed a survey to be disseminated to members of smaller law enforcement agencies serving populations of fewer than 50,000. The survey asked these members to identify significant law enforcement topics that they felt would be most relevant to a national policy summit and also those that had the most direct influence on the day-to-day operations of their agencies. Respondents also were asked to provide their national policy recommendations that, if implemented, would have an immediately positive effect on their agency.

The survey was developed and pretested by IACP staff. The survey format included six questions featuring both fixed response and open-ended questions. Some questions asked respondents to prioritize a set list of relevant operational categories to their agencies. Questions fell into two broad categories:

  • areas of relevance to a national summit and
  • recommendations for changes to the national law enforcement policy.

The survey was disseminated to members of the SACOP Smaller Agency Section as well as through listservs made available through the IACP Smaller Law Enforcement Agency Program. These listservs included the Mentoring Project database, the Big Ideas newsletter subscription list, and smaller agency advisors.

A total of 1,349 individuals representing agencies nationwide participated in the survey. Of these, 1,259 worked for an agency that served a population of 50,000 or fewer. No data were collected on the rank of individual respondents.

2012 Survey Results

In the first survey question, respondents were asked to select four operational categories from the following list of eight categories that they felt had the most relevance for a national smaller law enforcement agency policy summit:

  • Leadership
  • Management and Administration
  • Training and Education
  • Criminal Justice System
  • Technology
  • Response to Crime and Victimization
  • Emergency Preparedness
  • Other

Of these categories, the following top four were selected, in order:
  1. Training and Education (1,169 votes)
  2. Technology (988 votes)
  3. Leadership (936 votes)
  4. Management and Administration (929 votes)

A chart of all responses can be seen in figure 1. While no other category received more than half the total votes, a number of topics were submitted in the “Other” category. A number of these topics could be considered subtopics of the top four selected categories and are notable for narrowing the focus in these areas. Topics centered on themes of
  • regionalization and consolidation,
  • mutual aid agreements,
  • cuts to regional information sharing services, retention issues as a result of competition from larger agencies,
  • perceived disadvantage of smaller agencies when competing for grant funds,
  • professionalization of first-line supervisors, and
  • single-officer tactical training.

The second survey question asked respondents to rate the level of influence specific areas have on the daily operations of their agencies. These areas were derived from the operational categories listed in question one. In each area, respondents could select the level of influence as none, low, some, high, or very high. The results for each area can be seen in the chart in figure 2, but the following seven categories were scored as having either very high or high influence on the operations of their agencies by more than half the respondents:
  • Developing Partnerships
  • Public Perception of Policing
  • Accessing Training
  • Property Crime
  • Drug Crime
  • Obtaining Resources
  • Agency Liability

Respondents were asked in an open-ended question to provide their own recommended areas of review or national policy change that would have an immediate, positive effect on their agencies. More than 800 responses were received. The complete list is found in the report on the IACP website. The common themes that emerged in these responses include
  • more equitable distribution of federal funds comparable per capita between smaller and larger agencies;
  • less reliance on Uniform Crime Statistics (UCR) as a determining factor for federal funding;
  • better access to low-cost, quick turnaround regional crime labs;
  • monetary incentives to retain qualified officers or compensation from a competing agency to pay the training costs of an officer recruited away from the original agency;
  • easier exchange of information between federal, state, and local agencies nationwide by relaxing some privacy laws; and
  • nationwide certification standards to enhance professionalism in smaller agencies.

The full report and extensive list of responses can be found online at


The State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP) is one of three divisions within the IACP.

SACOP is the organizing body for the 50 state associations of chiefs of police, facilitating the exchange of information both to leadership and policy makers and to the field.

SACOP membership comprises the decision-making body of each state association of chiefs of police:
  • The presidents of the individual state associations
  • The state representatives who serve as each state’s SACOP liaison (often a board officer)
  • The executive directors who manage the associations

More information about SACOP is found at

The 2012 SACOP Meeting

In March 2012, SACOP held its annual midyear meeting in Alexandria, Virginia. During the meeting, the Smaller Agency Section of SACOP convened 50 members to hold a national mini-summit called Bringing the Voice of Smaller Agencies to the National Dialogue on the Future of Policing in America. The summit enabled smaller law enforcement agency representatives to discuss the relevant issues facing their agencies and formulate recommendations that could be put forth in a national policy dialogue to address their concerns. In addition, representatives also were asked to provide recommendations to the IACP on how it might better support smaller agencies on national policy issues.

The mini-summit was moderated by IACP Research Center Director John Firman and included opening remarks from then-IACP Immediate Past President Walter A. McNeil, chief of police, Quincy, Florida, Police Department.

The survey was disseminated to the representatives prior to this summit with an overall review conducted at the summit. The survey served as the springboard to focus participants on the listed categories that

  • were the most relevant for national policy,
  • had the most impact on daily operations of smaller agencies, and
  • specified policy recommendations made by survey participants.

The 50 members were divided into three focus groups, and each group was facilitated by an IACP staff member. The focus groups were tasked with moving from a broad perspective of the issues to a focused list of priorities for smaller law enforcement agencies. Focus group members were instructed to conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of the current state of smaller agencies.

Focus Group Observations

The focus groups were facilitated by an IACP staff member and were given 90 minutes to prioritize one or two recommendations that should be part of a national policy dialogue, as well as provide recommendations to the IACP on how the association can support the smaller agency voice on national policy issues. To begin the process of narrowing these recommendations, IACP staff led each focus group in a SWOT analysis of the state of smaller agencies to gain a perspective on the issues.

Strengths. Many of the areas identified as strengths for smaller agencies centered on the ties and relationships formed with the community because of their closeness with and intimate knowledge of their citizens. Focus group members cited the ability of officers to better know their communities through frequent interactions with a smaller number of citizens. These interactions lead to enhanced communication and ultimately increased accountability, as community members have clear access to their agencies without having to navigate an extensive bureaucracy. Often, officers in smaller agencies are able to follow up a case to its conclusion, resulting in quicker decision making to move a case forward as well as comprehensive, quality service to the victim and residents affected. These relationships and communication channels also can build political support, resulting in a more stable and financially secure agency.

Another strength cited is the flexibility and adaptability to implement change in the smaller agency. Because smaller agencies have a flatter hierarchy, new policies, procedures, or training can be implemented relatively quickly with a more immediate response to understand the outcomes of the change. As such, smaller agencies are at an advantage to implement effective, evidence-based policies at a faster rate than larger agencies, as well as try new, innovative changes that could serve as a model for the rest of law enforcement. Indeed, focus group members thought ideas from the field were allowed to percolate to the top of their agencies at a faster rate than larger agencies. That fact, along with the smaller agency’s intimate relationship with the community, leads many to believe that smaller agencies pioneered the early principles of community-oriented policing, even if it was not recognized as such at the onset.

Weaknesses. When discussing weaknesses, conversation focused on smaller agencies’ lack of resources and funding relative to larger agencies. Smaller agencies often struggle to compete for grant funding, as they do not have dedicated staff to complete grant proposals or believe they may not be eligible as they do not meet UCR data criteria or criminal activity thresholds. This lack of resources affects the agency’s ability to recruit qualified officers and often results in their officers being drawn away to a larger agency after they have spent their resources on training and mentoring the officer. Members provided suggestions to mitigate the cost of attrition to an agency, which will be discussed in the Opportunities part of this article; however, even receiving some compensation does not reduce the challenge of operating an agency short on personnel.

Participants also discussed the difficulty in managing unfunded mandates from public officials. Although these mandates may reflect a new innovation in the approach to crime, often the terms are too restrictive and result in a regressive cost to the smaller agency that may not justify the outcomes of the mandate. In cases where funding is provided, smaller agencies may not have the staff available to meet the reporting requirements. Ironically, the close relationship that smaller agencies have with their local officials that was mentioned in “Strengths” also can be a double-edged sword as some law enforcement agencies can lose their sense of independence and succumb to local political pressure. Decisions may be based solely on city budgetary considerations rather than on seeking opportunities that could improve the quality of an agency.

Participants mentioned a pressing need for national training standards and qualifications in smaller agencies for officers and executives as well as methods to access such training. A lack of hiring standards for new police chiefs results in unqualified candidates being selected for a job and soon becoming overwhelmed with the responsibilities. Command and supervisory staff also suffer from a lack of professional development standards as they relate to leadership and administration, thereby reducing the pool of qualified executive candidates. Accessing such training is difficult for smaller agencies, as they often cannot sustain adequate staff coverage to send an officer away for more than one or two days to a training program. As a result, smaller agencies are often less able to keep up with the changing times and may be exposing themselves to increased liability as their policies and procedures become outdated.

Opportunities. A number of opportunities were mentioned by the focus groups to improve the professional standards and operations of smaller agencies. Participants discussed the development of national standards to address questions on personnel and equipment requirements, use of force, eligibility criteria, and annual training hours required. Many participants thought these standards could be developed in collaboration with local government associations such as the International City/County Management Association or the League of Cities so that city officials could be aware of the recommended standards for their law enforcement agencies. Participants cited the process fire departments have used to create current standards as a possible template for law enforcement.

Discussion also focused on whether such standards should be mandated or voluntary. Some members thought that incentives such as increased access to resources, including funding, should be provided to those agencies that choose to comply. Other members recommended linking the adoption of agency standards with the rates of municipalliability insurance premiums in an effort to encourage participation.

Other opportunities also were discussed in the area of recruitment and retention. Some participants believe a clearinghouse of decertified officers should be created with full disclosure of their backgrounds in an effort to prevent agencies from continuing to hire those officers. They also thought that a chief’s liability should be limited for disclosing such information during the course of a background check.

In order to retain qualified officers, participants discussed renewing funding to the Law Enforcement Assistance Program. Participants also recommended revamping the pay structure for smaller agency officers. Another possibility was creating an exchange program whereby officers could serve in multiple agencies of various sizes over the course of a few years.

Participants discussed opportunities to improve operational efficiency. While somewhat controversial (see Threats), the topic of regionalization was mentioned as an area where agencies could potentially share and save resources. Expanding the jurisdictional authority of officers could allow additional assistance to agencies facing staff shortages. Special weapons and tactics teams could provide support combating the production of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines, as many smaller agencies are not well-equipped to deal with this issue.

Enhancing information sharing also is crucial. Smaller agencies would benefit from access to technology and training that use software that is consistent across their regions and states to allow better flow of information. Participants also thought that smaller agencies could better collaborate with state fusion centers on local and regional crimes.

Threats. Focus group participants viewed inconsistent funding sources as a primary threat to smaller agencies. With a recent trend in reduced revenue from local tax bases and through grants from federal and state sources, there is concern about the sustainability of smaller agencies. The strict oversight of local officials on agency budgets has compromised the ability of some smaller agency executives to make independent decisions on law enforcement issues and could have a detrimental effect on crime trends in their communities. Also, whereas regionalization and mutual aid were cited as having some cost-sharing benefits to agencies, a counterargument offered the possibility of overzealous cost-cutting by regional officials resulting in the forced consolidation of certain departments. Such consolidation could result in layoffs of law enforcement personnel and delays in service to community residents.

Issues for a National Policy Dialogue

After completing the SWOT analysis, the participants prioritized the recommendations in two areas: (1) issues to review in a national policy dialogue on the state of smaller agencies, and (2) ways the IACP can support the smaller agency on national policy issues.

Reforming in the national mini-summit format, the SACOP Smaller Agency Section consolidated the best ideas into four issues appropriate for a national policy dialogue.

Issue 1—standardizing an excellence in policing model. Dialogue should focus on standardizing an excellence in policing model for smaller agencies that provides administrative guidelines for both agency executives and the elected officials that oversee them.

Such a policing model could establish more consistency among smaller agencies and tailor practices to the specific challenges facing them rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Once a smaller agency policing model has been developed, a national dialogue should focus less on developing mandates and more on how to encourage smaller agencies to adopt model recommendations through incentives such as access to funding, technology, or personnel. In order to do so, local, state, and federal funding agencies also must adopt the same standards of a smaller agency policing model to reinforce rather than contradict the established model. Local fire departments have been successful in developing and implementing a standardized model of administrative procedures and could serve as an example in this area. Special consideration also should be given to standards of professional development for mid- to low-level supervisors in the area of leadership. Developing those officers would address a need for qualified executives in smaller agencies.

Issue 2—finding methods of sustainability. Dialogue should focus on methods of sustainability for smaller agencies.

In an era of reduced revenue, smaller agencies need to identify alternative revenue sources, such as new tax or fee sources, as well as private contributions to meet the service demands of their communities. This is not only a sustainability issue, but an officer safety issue—when an agency must stretch limited personnel to keep up with current demand. In the area of public funding, smaller agencies seek more equitable distribution of funds with larger agencies. Challenges that need to be overcome are a lack of grant-writing staff, the strict use of UCR data for grant criteria, and excessive reporting requirements that strain agency resources.

Beyond additional revenue, cost-saving measures also should be discussed. Advocating for reduced insurance premiums contingent on accreditation achievement is one possibility. Regionalization and increasing the jurisdictional authority of officers also should be reviewed, specifically in creating specialized tactical units and sharing resources such as crime labs. However, consideration should be given to the potential impact on service delivery and rise in crime costs associated with consolidation that could result from a shift to regionalizing resources.

Issue 3—improving recruitment and retention. Dialogue should include recommendations to improve smaller agency recruitment and retention.

A number of options exist to improve recruitment and retention in smaller agencies. Agencies could implement an officer exchange program so that recent academy graduates could cycle through smaller and larger agencies to gain exposure to the operations and benefits of being employed at a smaller agency.

The COPS hiring program1 should continue to issue hiring grants for new employees but should allow the funds to be issued in a graduated scale starting at 100 percent of the officers’ pay in the first year and gradually reducing funds by 10 percent over the course of five to seven years. This would extend the life of the grant and also allow the agency to better build the officer’s salary into their budget.

In the area of retention, smaller agencies would benefit from a formula to determine an adequate staffing structure contingent on jurisdictional size and population. This would allow agencies to know what staffing levels best meet officer safety standards and better justify personnel costs.2

A compensation system should be devised when an officer is lured away by another law enforcement agency within the first one to two years of employment. Smaller agencies should be able to recoup the cost of the training they provided to the new hire, although this still would not represent the full loss of their investment.

Any discussion should focus on options to renew funding for the Law Enforcement Assistance Program,3 to provide new hires with tuition reimbursement toward educational costs in exchange for a minimum number of years of employment at a smaller agency. Such an incentive might reduce the significant attrition that often occurs within the first five years on the job.

Issue 4—improving access to and consistency of technology and information sharing. Dialogue should include recommendations on standards for technology and information sharing, along with methods to improve access to equipment in smaller agencies.

Discussion should include two main areas of focus related to technology and information sharing: access and consistency. A lack of access to technology such as WiFi and in-car computers in rural areas is a primary obstacle to developing the professionalism of smaller agencies. One recommendation to alleviate a lack of access to technology is to create a national equipment registry so smaller agencies could obtain used equipment. For many smaller agencies, obtaining even outdated equipment is still preferable to having none at all.

Dialogue also needs to include a plan to make software systems consistent across the region, the state, and the country. Such consistency would allow various smaller agencies to better communicate among each other and with their regional fusion centers. Developing this relationship with their regional fusion centers could also be beneficial in solving crimes locally as information could be shared back to the smaller agency. Equally important as implementing uniform software is the need for access to training to ensure reporting is done accurately.

Future Action

The SACOP Smaller Agency Section and the IACP staff carefully arrived at the needs of the smaller agencies today through these steps:

  1. Conducting a survey completed by 1,259 smaller agencies officials
  2. Holding a meeting of 50 smaller agency representatives from throughout the United States
  3. Conducting a SWOT analysis of the current state of smaller agencies
  4. Holding focus groups to prioritize recommendations
  5. Convening a national mini-summit to further actions on the recommendations

From this effort, the section developed the report Bringing the Voice of Smaller Agencies to the National Dialogue on the Future of Policing in America. This report identifies relevant issues facing the smaller agencies, formulates recommendations to put forth in a national policy dialogue to address these concerns, and makes specific recommendations for the leadership of the IACP to take in addressing concerns.

While the plan presented in this report is ambitious, it is achievable. The SACOP Smaller Agency Section will continue working towards implementing these recommendations and readers of Police Chief magazine are encouraged to reach out to the SACOP leadership and staff in achieving these goals. ♦

1See U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, “FY 2012 COPS Hiring Program (CHP),” (accessed February 20 2013).
2Editor’s note: Please see Jeremy M. Wilson and Alexander Weiss, “Staffing the ‘Small’ Department: Taking Stock of Existing Benchmarks and Promising Approaches,” The Police Chief 80 (April 2013): 34–39. As the FBI notes in the annual issue of the Uniform Crime Reports,“Because of law enforcement’s varied service requirements and functions, as well as the distinct demographic traits and characteristics of each jurisdiction, readers should use caution when drawing comparisons between agencies’ staffing levels based upon police employment data from the UCR program. In addition, the data presented here reflect existing staff levels and should not be interpreted as preferred officer strengths recommended by the FBI. Lastly, it should be noted that the totals given for sworn officers for any particular agency reflect not only the patrol officers on the street but also officers assigned to various other duties such as those in administrative and investigative positions and those assigned to special teams.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports, (accessed February 20, 2013).

The IACP methodology requires consideration of a series of factors and a body of reliable, current data. Such factors are unique to each locality and agency and include policing philosophy; policing priorities, policies, and practices; the number of calls for service; the population size and density; the composition of the population, particularly age structure; the stability and the transiency of the population; cultural conditions; the climate, especially seasonality; the policies of prosecutorial, judicial, correctional, and probation agencies; citizen demands for crime control and non-crime control services; crime reporting practices of citizenry; and municipal resources. When designing the formula, factors such response time standards, supervision style and requirements, and community policing roles need to a part of the process. Another example is assessing the actual availability of officers by considering when officers report for duty; when officers do not report for duty due to time off for vacations, sick leave, court time, training; and other reasons. When on duty, how much time is spent on directed officer activity (directed patrol), self-initiated officer activity, and administrative activity? For details, see International Association of Chiefs of Police, Patrol Staffing and Deployment Study, (accessed February 20, 2013).
3Please note: The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was created by the U.S. Congress in the 1968 Safe Streets Act and placed in the U.S. Department of Justice. It was the predecessor to today’s Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. LEAA contributed to law enforcement professionalism by providing higher education opportunities. The Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) enabled 100,000 students to attend more than 1,000 colleges and universities. A significant majority of current criminal justice leaders around the United States are LEEP alumni. For details, see U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program, LEAA/OJP Retrospective: 30 Years of Federal Support to State and Local Criminal Justice, July 1996, (accessed February 20 2013).

Bringing the Voice of Smaller Agencies to the National Dialogue on the Future of Policing in America is the complete report by the SACOP Smaller Agency Section. It is located at

Please cite as:

Ben Ekelund, "Future of Policing in America: Bringing the Voice of Smaller Agencies to the National Dialogue," The Police Chief 80 (April 2013): 56–65.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 4, April 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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