Patrolling in a small town

THOMPSON, N.D. -- The police department here might be one of the smallest in the country -- it has one officer. But like all small cities in the region, Thompson's leaders have a big decision to make when it comes to policing. They recently hired...

Interim Hawley Police Chief Scott Steer visits with resident Duane Johnson after filling up for gas at Kirk's Super Stop in Hawley, Minn. David Samson / The Forum
David Samson / Forum News Service Interim Hawley Police Chief Scott Steer talks with resident Ernie Lepper at the Hawley Post Office.

THOMPSON, N.D. -- The police department here might be one of the smallest in the country -- it has one officer.

But like all small cities in the region, Thompson's leaders have a big decision to make when it comes to policing. They recently hired a new officer. Before that, Thompson relied on the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office for its policing.

Thompson and a couple of other cities in Grand Forks County have continued a small-town police department tradition instead of switching to contracting with the sheriff's office.

Thompson Mayor Karyn Hippen said contracting with the county was on the table, but city leaders ultimately decided to maintain their small-department tradition.

The Grand Forks County cities of Emerado, which has about 420 people, and Northwood, which has about 1,000 people, also have their own police departments.


But no cities in Cass County, with the exception of Fargo and West Fargo, have their own police departments.The sheriff's office contracts with four cities.

When Casselton dissolved its department in 2000 and Kindred dissolved its in 2007, the Cass County Sheriff's Office took over policing. The county also provides contract policing for Mapleton and Horace. The county routinely patrols other cities and towns, but it's not obligated to police a city or enforce its ordinances without a contract.

"With a contract community, we have specific hours and time commitments to that community where there will be a physical presence," Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said.

The Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office also offers contracting services, but the only contract it has is with Larimore, said Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost.

"They don't have to deal with the police aspect of anything," Rost said of Larimore. "As far as retention, they stay because that's kind of my feeding ground for my deputies who come out into the field here in Grand Forks."

Clay County in Minnesota contracts with one city, Ulen, but Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said while other cities have asked about contracting, all of the ones with their own departments intend to keep them.

Emerado's kerfuffle

Contracting isn't a perfect solution for all cities, though. Emerado, in Grand Forks County, had a bit of a kerfuffle with the sheriff's office in 2013 after a contracting agreement was reached.


"We canceled the contract in Emerado because the mayor tried to hire my deputy as his police chief because he wanted his own local control, so you know what, we just canceled the contract," Rost said.

The city now has its own one-man department. Emerado Mayor Dan Henneman disputes Rost's claims.

Henneman said he never approached the deputy to offer him a job and said his complaints about the contract stemmed from the cost of the service, which Rost said rises from year to year.

Henneman said the city's $100,000 annual budget for police, which makes up about a fourth of the city's overall budget, isn't flexible, and a contract with the county would have meant coming close to going over budget.

Henneman also did not like the lack of control the city had over policing during the contract.

Some cities place a higher importance on maintaining local control of police, while others are more concerned with cost and turnover.

"We give up too many things as our small communities start to dwindle and die," Henneman said. "If you don't hold onto them, you don't have a small community. All you are is somebody in the county and then you don't have anything."

He said when Emerado contracted with the sheriff's office for policing, the ability to communicate with the law enforcement in town went away.


"What I was told by our local sheriff here, was that I had no direct interaction with that county officer whatsoever," Henneman said. "I was taken down from a mayor all the way down to just a person who lives in the city."

Hawley (Minn.) Mayor Gary Johnson echoed some of the same points.

"We chose to stay with the local police department because we have officers who are dedicated to the city of Hawley," Johnson said. "They get to know our citizens much, much better."

Local control versus lower cost

Cost is a factor in many decisions to contract, but some cities are willing to pay more for more local control.

"You can contract for less than what our budget is for the police department, no doubt in my mind," Johnson said. "But you don't get the coverage, you don't get the protection."

Former Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said city leaders were worried when the city transitioned from having its own police department to contracting with the county in 2000, but said it went well. Casselton saw the benefit cost-wise and the switch made sense because the department was prone to high turnover, McConnell said. In 1998, the department lost its chief and two officers at about the same time.

"We had a really good deputy to transition into it," McConnell said. The deputies assigned to Casselton also got out into the community and developed relationships with them, much like a small-town force.


He said contracting isn't perfect. City leaders heard complaints that there were always new deputies in the city, which is a problem for small communities used to familiar faces.

"Half the crime that's solved is probably solved by the people in town," McConnell said. "They have to have a comfort level with that guy, so they feel comfortable talking with him and telling him what's going on."

Northwood Police Chief Stan Baker said living in the community and knowing all of its residents makes his job "easier and it makes it more pleasurable."

He said even though his department is just him and a part-time officer, he has the same duties as any other police officer in the state, just on a smaller scale.

The cost of providing police protection is typically the largest expense any city faces, regardless if it contracts or has its own department.

Casselton, a city of about 2,400 people, spends $135,000 for policing, which is about 30 percent of the city's budget.

Dilworth, a city of about 4,000 people, has a 10-person department with five officers. Police Department costs comprise about 45 percent of the city's budget, which City Administrator Peyton Mastera said is typical for a city of Dilworth's size.

While Thompson will likely maintain its own department for a while, Sheriff Rost said contracting with his department would be a less-expensive option.


"They could save money by contracting with me," an estimated $5,000 a year, Rost said.

Mayor Hippen said the costs would balance out fairly evenly, though.

There is a third option for Thompson and other small cities that don't see a lot of crime: Do away with police service altogether and rely on the sheriff for emergencies only.

"I think that, yeah, it's an option, and as a town we have to recognize that is something we could choose, but I don't believe that'd be a good idea for the community," Hippen said.

Recruiting a problem

Recruiting officers for a small city's force can be an ordeal. Sheriff's departments, especially large ones like in Cass and Grand Forks counties, don't have to worry about disappearing if a deputy leaves. But in small towns like Thompson, a police officer quitting means the department does disappear, at least until they find a replacement.

"It's hard to find a small-town policeman that has to work the kind of hours that they have to work and there's no future," Rost said. "There's no advancement. You're not going anywhere."

Pay is also a factor, but larger departments don't always pay better.

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