Why Did This Town's Entire Police Force Quit?

Today we are sharing a guest post by Christian Bergland. He is a Strong Towns reader who is from Blandford, Massachusetts. If the name Blandford rings a bell, it may be because we shared a news article on social media last week about the sudden resignation of the town’s entire police force… of four officers. Christian reached out to tell us that he thought our comment on the story missed the mark, and that the actual local context was both more complicated and more interesting. So we invited him to submit an article and set the record straight.

He came back with the following, which not only answers the question, “Why did the police force quit?” but also explores, through the context of Blandford, what it means for a small rural place to be a strong town.

My tiny Western Massachusetts hometown of Blandford – population 1,233 – made national news for the first and only time on July 30 when its entire police force suddenly resigned. This story was picked up by national publications, and seemingly offered something for every ideological bent. Was this a town that expressed its animosity toward the police at large by dramatically underfunding its police department? A liberal Massachusetts bastion that overspent on social programs and did not have enough left over for law enforcement? Or was it a cautionary tale of unfettered development, an example of what happens when you overbuild your infrastructure without a plan for how to pay for it, leaving you without basic municipal services?

Unfortunately for partisans on both sides of the aisle who thought this story fueled their respective narratives, the truth has more to do with the realities of funding a small town and less to do with ideological warfare. I am writing this piece in the hope that I can clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding this story, particularly those pertaining to issues covered by Strong Towns, while also highlighting what it means to be “strong” in the context of a very small, rural town.

Blandford would be a pretty typical rural town in most of the country. Politics skew very conservative, the gun ownership rate approaches 100%, and hunting is still common practice. Support for the police is generally very strong in both local terms and in the abstract, as you would expect in a town with the above attributes. Suffice it to say, local antipathy towards law enforcement was not a driver in the town’s lack of financial support for its police department.

While reporting on this story generally made it sound like Blandford had a full-time police department, that was not the case. The four officers in question were actually splitting 40 hours per week between them, meaning that the town only had local police coverage roughly 25% of the time. How were these police officers living on roughly 10 hours per week at $15 an hour? They weren’t: police in Massachusetts hold a near-monopoly on traffic control jobs, and being a police officer in any town opens up lucrative traffic control (“detail”) work. For the town's police officers, holding a Blandford badge essentially represents a license to market their services elsewhere, making up for their low pay.

Blandford’s limited police funding represents the kind of acknowledgement of local needs and limitations that Strong Towns frequently encourages. There is almost no crime in the town, and for the 75% of the time that Blandford police are not on the job, the town’s residents depend on the local Massachusetts State Police barracks 3.5 miles away. Blandford has never seen itself as a town with the need or the budget for a full-time police force, and as a result it has never had one. Essentially, the town has recognized its needs in this area and lived within its means, precisely the kind of decision-making process that Strong Towns advocates for.

In its initial social media post on the topic, Strong Towns suggested that Blandford was overbuilt. It is true that the town has financial challenges. Population density is very low. Commerce is essentially nonexistent, consisting of some highway rest stops and a single general store that goes out of business every few years. The local ski area was a tax-exempt nonprofit through 2017 (and was closed in 2018), representing a drain on the town’s finances in terms of road maintenance without providing any meaningful contribution in the form of commercial activity. The town’s lack of business activity means that residential real estate taxes need to pay for all town services.

Those services, however, are quite limited. Town water only extends to the higher-density center of town (though, unsurprisingly, the town has needed to apply for grants in order to maintain its water supply network). There is no city sewer: every home in town has its own septic tank. Instead of curbside trash pickup we have a town dump, the use of which requires an annual fee. The fire department is entirely volunteer, with volunteer departments from neighboring towns coming to help in case of fire.

In many ways, Blandford is not so different from the corner of Tasmania that Karen Treanor wrote about on Strong Towns last week (though we lack wallabies, unfortunately). While the town may not be dense, its lack of density does not give rise to the kind of infrastructure and service-oriented black holes that many towns face, simply because people in Blandford generally have lower expectations of city services than their suburban peers.

Blandford’s financial challenges are real, however, and they are in large part due to the town’s aging and the cost of infrastructure repair. Strong Towns has previously covered the “un-paving” of America’s roads, and this is something that Blandford should probably consider. While there are already a number of unpaved roads in town, there are also many roads serving few people that remain paved, often poorly. When the town needs to resurface its roads, that often means going to the state seeking grant funding. Having access to state money has allowed the town to avoid having the difficult conversation about whether these streets should in fact remain paved. It also means that streets often disintegrate until money comes in to repair them, and in many cases, road quality and safety might benefit from converting to more affordably maintained gravel.

While Blandford could definitely be on better footing financially, the town has already accepted a number of cost-saving measures, including closing its grammar school in favor of a regionalized education model. Prior to the town’s officers walking off the job, Blandford was already considering a shared policing model with a neighboring town, a measure that would likely not result in any decline in public safety, given the town’s low crime rate, but one that might allow both towns to improve their police coverage and supply more appropriate equipment. It is an open question as to whether a part-time police department represents a crime deterrent in the way a full-time department might, doubly so given the town’s large size (53 square miles).

Strong Towns initially pointed to Blandford as a failure. As someone who works in the economic development realm and whose family has been in town for going on six decades, I see it as a strong town that is doing the best it can with the resources it has. While the town’s future will surely hold new difficult choices surrounding financial trade-offs, it also avoids the ticking time bomb of the growth finance model that Strong Towns so loudly decries. As it stands, the town is also investigating some interesting pathways for economic growth that I hope to address in a future post. Ultimately, while Blandford might not delight a New Urbanist, or exemplify the traditional development pattern that Strong Towns holds up as a model for more populous places, that does not mean that its decision-making processes are inherently flawed.

(Top image source: Jason Lawrence via Flickr. Creative Commons license.)