NORTHWOOD, N.D. — Everyone smiles and waves at Northwood Police Chief Mark Pollert as he walks into Skip’s Cenex to buy a cup of coffee. He jokes with three men sitting at a corner booth and catches up with the cashier.
He knows everyone’s name and the details of their lives. It's both a blessing and a curse, he said.
“On a daily basis you’re dealing with people you grew up with, worked for at one time, or have known for a long time and you have to come and be the 'bad guy' sometimes now,” he said. “That can be challenging but it balances out. I think people understand you have a job to do.”
There’s a tight-knit sense of community in small towns like Northwood, Pollert said. And there’s a lot of pride, which is one of the reasons the town of approximately 900 has elected to keep its small police force instead of switching to a contract service with the county sheriff's department, as many other rural communities have done during the last few decades to save money.
Police departments in small towns throughout northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota have increasingly closed their doors as shrinking populations suffocate their already small budgets and it becomes harder to recruit staff to the remote locations. Many area sheriffs believe the trend is not isolated to the area, but reaching all rural areas of the country.
In the 11 counties surrounding Grand Forks, for example, there are 14 city police forces.
Partnerships with sheriff's offices ensure city ordinances are still enforced and offer patrol presence at a reduced rate. Some cities, like Lankin, N.D., pay as little as $147 per month, while others, like Langdon, opt for more inclusive services at a higher rate. Either way, area sheriffs agree the cost savings are exceptional — Red Lake County Sheriff Mitch Bernstein estimates some cities that contract services from a sheriff's department may only be paying 10% of what they would spend to maintain their own police force.
But the growing practice also relies on a mostly stagnant number of deputies to provide more services throughout counties that often span over 300 miles. There's a bigger rush to reach a crash scene and sometimes not enough time to talk with the townspeople over coffee and dig out the intricacies of the community's problems.
Staffing, finance challenges
While nearby towns like Larimore or Mayville have shuttered their police departments in recent years, Pollert said something drastic would have to happen to convince Northwood to end its police service.
He said the citizens like seeing his patrol vehicle around town. Pollert said the department faces the same issues as all other small towns — small budgets and staffing challenges.
Across the country, rural population sizes have shrunk over the decades. Ramsey County Sheriff Steve Nelson said farm sizes have expanded, which means fewer farmers and smaller towns. Some area schools have consolidated sports and classes to make the most of meager resources.
Nelson noted many rural communities struggle to retain younger people because of a lack of amenities. Many of the communities have lost basic businesses, like grocery stores, making it impossible to buy necessities without a commute.
“Small towns are drying up and they can’t afford the tax revenue anymore to keep all of what they had,” said Roseau County Sheriff Steve Gust.
The costs of maintaining a police force can be steep; there’s the price for equipment, maintenance, constant changes to technology and, of course, the salary and benefits to pay the officers.
Another problem is staff retention. Grand Forks County Sheriff Andy Schneider said small towns are often viewed as a stepping stone for young officers.
“Small-town policing takes a special person. ...You get your officers out there that are part of the community and whatnot. They grew up there, they have a family there, but once they move on to other things, be that retirement or another calling, then you start cycling through people that are trying to get more experience and then go to other places.”
What’s in a contract?
As many rural communities eliminate police forces, they transition to a contracted service with the county sheriff’s department, although each county seems to have slightly different versions of the agreements.
The contracts allow deputies to enforce city ordinances that they would otherwise not have jurisdiction over. Deputies still respond to 911 calls and emergencies throughout the county, including in cities with no contract or an independent police force. In Ramsey County, Sheriff Steve Nelson said deputies still do their best to patrol the entire county, but their hands are tied if they see a city ordinance violation because none of the cities have a contract.
“They’ll cover their barking dogs and tall grass complaints and all those municipal ordinances that typically aren’t handled at the state level,” said Schneider.
Red Lake County Sheriff Mitch Bernstein said the cost difference between contracting services and having an independent police force is drastic.
“I look at Red Lake Falls, which is the county seat and has around 1,500 people, and they’re only paying $56,000 a year. Whereas if they have their own police department? They’d be in the half-million-dollar range, probably close,” he said. “They’re paying about 10% of what they probably would if they had their own police department.”
In Cavalier County, two and a half full-time equivalent deputies are assigned to provide Langdon with 24-hour protection, costing about $219,000 per year. The town shut down its individual police department in 1991 and moved over to patrolling through the Sheriff’s Department to save money.
Grand Forks County has two officers assigned to cover Larimore for just under $160,000 annually, Schneider said. The city shuttered its police force in 2010.
Officers in Walhalla and Drayton act as a hybrid between independent police forces and sheriff’s contracts — the officers are cross-deputized. The forces are funded by the city, but the county kicks in $20,000 to Walhalla and $25,000 to Drayton annually to assist the sheriff’s office, according to Pembina County Sheriff Terry Meidinger. The officers wear sheriff’s uniforms but are technically still town police officers.
“Basically, one wears blue and one wears brown but we’re all doing the same job,” he said. “We’re all part of the same law enforcement family.”
In other areas, like Nelson or Red Lake counties, smaller city contracts allow deputies to enforce the city codes, but don’t place designated full-time deputies within the cities. The counties determine the costs differently, but city population and the average number of law enforcement responses generally are factors.
In other counties, like Ramsey, Marshall and Kittson, no cities contract with the respective sheriff's departments. Ramsey County Sheriff Steve Nelson said most of the towns in the county are too small to have enough money to maintain a contract. Devils Lake has its own police force. The county’s population is concentrated heavily near Devils Lake, but Nelson said it’s a challenge to patrol the rest of the 1,300-square-mile county with six deputies.
Every sheriff in northwestern Minnesota and northeastern North Dakota cited response times as a main concern.
“People don’t realize when you get into rural areas how many miles we have to travel to get to a spot, especially if it’s in one of the corners of our county and we’re on the other end,” said Pennington County Sheriff Ray Kuznia. “It is a challenge and we’ve had to do different things to try to help that.”
When he was young, Kittson County Sheriff Mike Wilwant remembers that all the small towns had a police officer. As the years passed, police offices closed in Lancaster, Karlstad, Lake Bronson and other cities in the region. It became a national trend.
“We used to have like 9,000 people in the county but we’re down to like 4,500 now,” Wilwant said.
Hallock is the only remaining police department in Kittson County and it is staffed solely by Police Chief Mike Docken. Wilwant said it’s unlikely the town will keep the department open once Docken retires.
Pollert said he sees a future for the Northwood Police Department despite the decreasing number of forces in rural communities.
Unlike most small towns, Northwood is growing. The school is expanding and new houses are being built. Pollert said he recently suggested the city switch to a contract with the sheriff’s department, but others in the community were opposed to the idea.
“There’s a certain amount of pride that the community has in being able to say we have our own police department. … It’s a big thing with the pride just knowing that we have this, we have somebody that’s always going to be there to answer the phones and help out.”
Pollert said he understands and often shares the pride in his community, but he also has experienced the challenges that come with operating a small-town police force.
Since April, he’s operated the Northwood Police Department as a one-man show. He’s been working up to 90 hours a week to respond to calls at all times of day. But things are looking up – Pollert said he recently hired another officer, who began going out on calls alone Friday. He’s planning to hire another part-time officer, too.
While some parts of his job are stressful, Pollert said he’s happy to give back to the city where he grew up. He wants to make sure his neighbors feel safe.
During Friday morning’s patrol he stopped to take a photo of a hawk resting on a bird water fountain. He texted the photo to the homeowner, who he knew was a “bird fanatic."
"He’s just going to love this," Pollert said.
A minute later, he passed by a white house filled with his childhood memories. It's where his parents still live.
A few blocks over, his daughter spotted the patrol car driving by the playground and excitedly yelled out, “daddy!” And Pollert remembered why he loves this job and this town so much.
“Even my kids or other peoples’ kids in town, the biggest question you get is ‘why do you wear a gun?’ And I tell them ‘I carry a gun because the bad guys do and I want to protect you.’ The look on their face when you tell them you’re protecting them — that helps push you through, realize it’s worth it.”