CAPITAL REGION (NEWS10) – Many law enforcement agencies have struggled to recruit and retain a workforce. According to experts, it’s a national trend that has a significant impact on smaller, rural communities.

That’s because they have a smaller tax base and that affects law enforcement budgets and ultimately staffing, according to the Small and Rural Law Enforcement Executive Association. It’s a problem Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith is all too familiar with.

“In general, the numbers are down taking our exams and then the length it takes to get the scores back and do the background checks and actually get somebody through the entire hiring process has caused major delays in getting people out onto the street,” said Smith. 

Those delays mean less officers on patrol and that impacts response times – which can take up to 20 minutes in some counties.

Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino is on the board of the Small and Rural Law Enforcement Executive Association and said this issue goes beyond the local level.

“Small agencies with 50 or less officers patrol 90 percent of the population. So let me say that again, agencies with 50 or less sworn members patrol 90 percent of this country and most of it is rural areas,” said Giardino.

The association was formed in 2015 and consists of mostly police chiefs and sheriffs, and currently has 6,954 members. It was established to get the smaller agencies that serve most of the U.S. a seat at the table. But challenges still exist and result in smaller agencies losing officers to bigger agencies that pay more or have better benefits packages. 

Giradino said there are two national trends, retirement and people switching careers. Smith said a lot of it has to do with social unrest. 

“Being a police officer has definitely become a little more challenging. Sometimes there’s peaks and valleys with law enforcement and support of law enforcement and it’s generally based on the things that we do. If there’s bad officers, after they make bad decisions, obviously people look a little negatively upon the profession,” said Smith. 

He added, if there are officers doing the right thing and making good decisions, public support of officers tends to be more favorable. He said measures that hold officers accountable for their actions are necessary.

“Understand that most police officers work very hard, they’re here to try to do the right thing and we need your support and then when we do wrong, we need to be held accountable and stand up for those actions and let people know that we made a mistake. Just like everybody else, we make mistakes as well but they have to be corrected and not tolerated,” said Smith.

believes more funding and educational services are needed and says there have been changes to recruiting to address the issue.

“In the past if you had a marijuana arrest as a kid, or you stole a six-pack when you were in college, or you got into a fight, those would be grounds for disqualifying you as a police officer. Now the worldview is we have to open up our doors and accept more individuals, some who may have had brushes with the law,” said Giardino.

According to the association more than half of all local law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. have fewer than 10 sworn officers

Many smaller departments do not operate 24/7 because of budget restrictions. Sheriff’s offices have partnered with village police departments to fill the gaps. 

“If they ever need us to help them, we certainly will and there’s many times that we need them to help us so partnering together and doing everything we can to support one another and help fill those open shift voids is what makes our law enforcement service in this community in this county very, very good and then we’re proud of that,” said Smith.

Giardino wants the state to “take a serious look” at the issues and believes more funding and educational services are needed.