SALISBURY, N.H. — It’s been four years since this quiet town in central New Hampshire lost its police department. Salisbury’s population is about 1,400, and it feels even smaller: Downtown consists of a post office, a church and a gas station, with a library up the road. When both members of the town’s part-time police force quit abruptly in 2010, residents rejected a motion to restaff the department. The town sold off one of its cruisers and turned its guns over to the county sheriff’s department. Today, if a resident of Salisbury calls 911, the call goes straight to the state police, an arrangement that has led to some absurd scenarios: Recently, the state police were called in to resolve a dispute over a library fine.
Late last summer, the shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that ensued, sparked a national conversation about the militarization of American police departments. “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized,” a major American Civil Liberties Union report issued in July declared, “in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war.” The town of Keene, about an hour’s drive from Salisbury, secured a $286,000 armored personnel carrier to defend itself against terrorist attacks in 2012, for example.
As many police departments stock up on showy weaponry, however, others are quietly disappearing. The number of state and local law-enforcement agencies with fewer than 10 officers dipped by more than 2 percent between 2004 and 2008, according to the latest figures from the Department of Justice. The department is currently preparing an updated report. John Firman, the director of the research division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is helping with the survey, and he says the number of small departments is likely to decline again. “We’ve called at least 20 state associations,” he said, “and every one said, ‘We’re losing smaller departments. They’re shutting down.’ ”
Big-city police work attracts the overwhelming majority of news coverage, academic research and depictions in TV and movies. That’s in part because a wide variety of citizens live cheek-to-cheek in cities and crime is more frequent and more dramatic than it is in sleepy rural areas. In Salisbury, a community about 15 miles northeast of the state capitol of Concord, most calls to police have to do with domestic violence, theft, motor-vehicle accidents and “neighbor complaints,” according to state police Sgt. Ron Taylor. Salisbury’s biggest policing need in recent years occurred during a manhunt last winterthat ensued when a man fled into the woods after a domestic violence incident. He surrendered within hours. (New Hampshire has one of the lowest violent-crime rates in the country.)