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.