Little Dog, Big Teeth: How Proximity to Large Law Enforcement Agencies Affects the Preparedness of Smaller Agencies

The National Criminal Justice Reference Service released in 2012 and re-released this month a report titled: “Homeland Security in Small Law Enforcement Jurisdictions: Preparedness, Efficacy, and Proximity to Big-City Peers“. The study detailed in this report sought to address whether small municipal law enforcement agencies (employing 25 or fewer full-time sworn officers) that are “‘closer’ to large peers (in terms of physical distance and/or level of interaction) [were] taking more preparatory measures and did they perceive they were more capable of an effective response to a homeland security event.” 

While this is a data-dense report, the summation of findings is that small agencies are less prepared for homeland security emergency events than their larger peers, but also that intragroup variation exists. This variation is “partially a function of the proximity between small jurisdictions and their larger peers, [and partially] influenced by the extent to which small agencies are connected to broader trends, practices, and peers within the profession.” This is to say, the more connected a small municipal law enforcement force is to larger peers, the more prepared they become. The findings in this study directly counter the previous notion that agencies in smaller jurisdictions were not as prepared and fully funded due to their proximity to larger, better funded jurisdictions. 

By identifying the base issue of unpreparedness in small municipalities, law enforcement agencies nationwide should be able to strengthen their emergency preparedness by improving their connectivity with larger peers. Even small, geographically isolated agencies can enhance their preparedness by fostering a relationship with a larger police department. The study found that relational proximity is often more important than physical proximity between a smaller and larger jurisdiction. “[G]eographic separation did not – by itself – reduce preparedness in small jurisdictions,” it is a combination of geographic separation and relational separation.

The policy implications of this study include the need to “equalize the incentives for all agencies by funding task forces, partnerships or other collaborations that promote interaction and absorb its costs, thereby indirectly encouraging small agency preparedness.” Additionally it was recommended that funding for larger agencies include a stipulation on regional sharing in times of need or the donation of equipment to smaller agencies over time. The final implication is revealed in the data: small police agencies made a conceptual distinction between non-terrorism and terrorism-related preparedness, a 180 degree divergence from the all-hazards approach used in homeland security literature and training. 

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