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Columns : Editorial

Small Town Doesn't Mean Small Time

The majority of America's cops work in small towns, but they still face big dangers.

October 14, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Photo via Hoonah (Alaska) PD.

There is a tendency in law enforcement to dismiss cops who work in small towns. They are thought of by many fellow officers as Barney Fifes who could never cut it on big city forces.

The reality is that most small towns now have many of the problems that we identify as urban. Two years ago I wrote a feature on gangs operating in small towns. They're still there, and the problem is getting worse, not better.

Gangs are also certainly not the only problem that officers are likely to encounter in small towns. Local tax bases have taken a hit as manufacturing plants have closed so small town officers are left without equipment and their salaries are stagnant or dropping.

And small town law enforcement officers are just as likely to be attacked and even killed as their big city counterparts. Cops have been shot and killed this year in places like Guntersville, Ala.; Ross Township, Ohio; Reedley, Calif.; and Hoonah, Alaska.

The Hoonah incident last month reveals both the delights and dangers of being a small town cop.

Hoonah is a Tlingit Indian fishing village about 40 miles out of Juneau on Alaska's Inside Passage. It has a population of fewer than 800 souls. And recently, it lost two of its finest.

Sgt. Anthony Wallace, 32, was born into a family of cops. His father and his uncle both wore badges. And Wallace wanted to be a cop himself despite the fact that he was hearing impaired. He wanted to be a cop so badly that he chased his dream all the way from Rochester, N.Y., to Hoonah. He enjoyed the lifestyle and loved the hunting and fishing in Hoonah, and he planned to spend the rest of his career serving that community.

Officer Matthew Tokuoka, 39, was born in Hawaii and enlisted in the Marines. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant and went to Alaska after he got out of the service. He had worked for the Hoonah PD off and on since spring 2009.

At about 11 p.m. on Aug. 28, Wallace was on patrol. His mother who was visiting from Florida was riding along. His friend Tokuoka was out driving with his family and stopped to chat. Wallace was leaning into Tokuoka's family car playing with Tokuoka's little girl when shots rang out. Wallace was hit in the leg. Tokuoka told his wife to get the kids out of there and then he went to aid his fellow officer.

Both men were killed in front of their loved ones. The suspect John Marvin Jr., 45, then barricaded himself in his house. He surrendered the next day after a standoff with Alaska State Police and Juneau SWAT.

The Hoonah PD is very small, three or four officers (depending on how you count). They all know each other very well and Wallace and Tokuoka were clearly friends. That's one of the delights of this type of work. Another is that in a town that small, you get to know everyone. Also, on a slow night, you can take your mother for a ride and chat with a friend for a bit while on patrol.

Now for the dark side of small town law enforcement. Every small town has one or more disaffected and dangerous citizens. They are reclusive, but they love to cause trouble. They like to tick off the neighbors because basically they hate everybody. So the local cops get called to their houses over noise complaints, unleashed dogs, and even gunfire in the backyard. You see, these people believe they have the right to do anything on their property, even if it violates the law. And they hold special hatred for cops who spoil their fun.

The suspect in the Hoonah cop murders was reportedly a disaffected loner who even painted his windows black. In a previous encounter with Wallace and Tokuoka, he was TASERed and arrested. Authorities believe he held a grudge against Wallace and opened fire on him because of the previous arrest.

I have two messages in this column. The first is a bit of friendly advice for small town police: Watch out for these disaffected guys. They have killed many small town officers.

The second thing I want to do here is deliver a salute to small town cops. You don't get a lot of respect, and you don't earn as much as your urban counterparts, but your job is just as tough, if not tougher. You don't have many of the resources taken for granted by officers at bigger agencies, but you get the job done. No one should ever think of you as small time.

Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

Morning Eagle @ 10/19/2010 11:11 PM

Good article David. I started in law enforcement about a million years ago as a reserve officer in a small town then after about a year went full time with a different small town. The experiences in working with all kinds of people over that two and half year period served very well after I reached my goal of becoming a State Trooper and left me with a life long respect for officers working in small towns. I am sure those who read your column will appreciate you bringing attention to the hazards, and rewards, of doing the very necesssary job that they do. Hopefully it will also enlighten those who tend to look down upon small town officers as somehow inferior to those who work for larger departments.

ROB ROY @ 10/20/2010 12:13 AM

No matter where they work thier still a peace officers. Maybe if all of them would get the same training and support from thier departments there would be fewer tragedeys like this.

3572 @ 10/20/2010 9:46 AM

In 1976 I started at a 700 officer department. I worked traffic, patrol, narcotics, and special investigations through 1981. We called the crime scene people and detectives were forwarded reports to work the cases. During my time on patrol I tried to follow leads and make arrests during my shift from the info received while taking reports. In the large department there was a great deal of internal politics.

I went to work for a small agency with 5 full time officers as an investigator/patrol officer. The other 3 guys told me they wanted one of them to be Chief and they wanted to get rid of the Chief. It took them about 3 weeks to accomplish their mission. I guess my experience and training was threat because the same city official was told lies and attempted to fire me, he did not have the authority. I was fired by the new chief. On appeal to the city council I was reinstated and given back pay for my time without a job.

I worked at several places and found some places didn't want you to do the job or apply the law to everyone equally. Additionally, your backup could be a long way off. I realized that if the Chiefs that I worked for were Chief's I could be one too. I became a Chief in 1984 for department with 9 sworn officers. We did everything. We did crime scenes, investigations, traffic, patrol, and responded to medical emergencies. The experiences in small town policing gave me a whole new respect for small town officers in my 26 months. I had great support from the town council. The second department where I was Chief for 15 months had 17 sworn. I was the first outsider hired and last. At both departments I was a reform Chief and tried to bring them forward.

I have about 100 days until I retire after 23 years as federal agent. The honorable officers and agents I have served with have my respect, big or small agency. I may try to be a chief again soon.

scpdblue @ 11/19/2010 3:19 PM

My LE partner was shot and killed during a traffic stop in a small town, taken and buried in a cornfield for 5 days 50 miles away from the shooting. He was not only my LE partner he was also my father-in-law. So I know the dangers of a small town all too well.

Lilly A. James @ 5/31/2012 4:32 AM

I am not a peace officer. Tony took a liking to my son who is disabled. To this day he (Tony) and many other peace officers give my son HEROS to admire. Stay safe good people you are all very much cared for.

Randall c Mueller @ 9/17/2015 3:51 PM

I certainly respect all law enforcement, Especially in small towns and cities, I have been contemplating moving to ak, My mild but very cold winter is about two months away,I have been watching many shows on tv about different parts of alaska, It looks very cold and difficult to survive,in most if not all of ak But i feel a certain peace of self preservation and privacy that i can ever obtain here in nj,ny,pa,co, I could certainly be at peace in a small piece of land and strong cabin. I would like to build my own cabin,so i would need to buy a small lot perhaps , 1 to 5 acre,s of property preferably on top of a small mountain! just outside of the city for now. I am currently looking at the S E of ak. I would do my part to protect the people of any city or town where i recide and become a peace officer if possible . If you have any advise for me please contact via e mail thank you Respectfully Randall c Mueller

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