After Kirkersville: Are Ohio's Small Town Police Departments Worth The Cost?

May 29, 2018

We originally ran this story in June 2017. We are republishing it now after the death of Kirkersville Police Chief James Hughes, Jr., who was the town's third chief in a year. 

This is the second of a two-part story on the aftermath of the Kirkersville shooting and the viability of police forces in small communities. Read part one here.

Licking County, Ohio, covers 686 square miles and 14 police departments. Not to mention the Licking County Sheriff’s Office. 

The small village of Utica has a population of less than 2,200, but has its own police department – three full time and 13 part-time officers.

Last month’s murder of the Kirkersville police chief and two others brought additional attention to these small police departments, which are more common than not. In Ohio, about three-quarters of law enforcement agencies employ 20 officers or fewer. 

As for their use, small town residents say they want quick response to crimes, but the funding to pay personnel doesn’t always match expectations.

Police chief Clifford Bigler has worked in Utica fopr more than 20 years. The Utica Police department has a budget of $317,000, and Bigler says it only goes so far. 

“We’ve learned to adapt and to do our jobs, and I think we do a real good job at doing our job with what we have," Bigler says.

Last year, the department updated its dispatching center, so now calls go through the centralized 911 center in Newark. Six part-time dispatchers in Utica lost their jobs.  

Bigler admits the officers use older equipment, like the radar and some patrol cars. Two used cars came from the Ohio State Patrol.

And Bigler says the Licking County Sheriff’s Office assists when needed.

Utica Police chief Clifford Bigler says they have a small budget and sometimes rely on the Licking County Sheriff's Office for support.
Credit Debbie Holmes

“We have the luxury of having a sheriff’s office that is very well equipped, has a lot of resources that they can offer to us," Bigler says. "But we are far enough north that if we were not here, I think that would cause a hindrance on them because that would be extra territory that they would have to cover."

After 40 years in law enforcement, Port Clinton officer Mike Kilburn knows the financial strains of small police departments. In fact, he served as police chief in Kirkersville for one year during the 1990s. 

Kilburn's department included about a dozen volunteer officers.

“You quickly learn that the very first problem you have is that there is a financial vacuum, where there’s not the money to necessarily properly equip officers, to give them the training that I’ve seen in larger departments, so all that becomes very scary," Kilburn says.

Training varies widely between Ohio's police agencies. All officers must meet a state minimum standard, but small agencies may not need and can’t afford extra training. 

“If you were in a small town, you might not necessarily need the same kinds of advanced training if you’re assigned to a specialized task force in a large metropolitan area," says Jay McDonald, head of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police. "So we shouldn’t mandate the same kinds of training and those kinds of things for these kinds of agencies."

Small agencies do have back up, though. Licking County Sheriff’s deputies regularly patrol communities like Kirkersville and Utica. 

“Yes, there are lapses when they’re not out," says Captain Daro Evans. "And I can't tell you exactly what hours they work. A lot of times we’ll hear them out in the early morning. It's hit-and-miss when they're out. But it doesn't really create much of a burden on us, our guys just pick up the calls like we would any other call."

Licking County Sheriff’s deputies regularly patrol communities like Kirkersville and Utica, and some argue if the small police departments are even necessary.
Credit Debbie Holmes

That raises the question: With low crime rates and Sheriff’s Offices that cover the area, do these communities need their own police departments?

“When you start talking about Alexandria, and you start talking about Kirkersville, you’re talking about 600, 500 people, 400 people, and is that enough to support a police department?" Kilburn says. "It’s not."

Many times, small departments rely on traffic fines—and red light cameras—to pay the bills.

Greg Lawson of the conservative Buckeye Institute says the organization supports adequate funding for law enforcement, but some communities should consider merging their police departments.

“We do need to ask the question of how many might need their own unique force, versus what can we still do that still maintains public safety but still does it at a way that is cost-effective," Lawson says.

But McDonald says for places like Kirkersville, a police department is an important part of the community. 

“The people who are policing in these really small towns are doing it because they want to protect people and they want to do the right things, because why else would you get into something where you could give your life for something that pays you no money?" McDonald says. "Nobody’s getting rich in Kirkersville."