When people think of crime, they tend to picture city streets. But areas beyond the metro grapple with assaults and thefts as well, whether that means domestic assaults or the theft of copper from increasingly vast, unobserved farms. Crime rates, it's true, are declining and generally lower than in urban areas. But rural crime is declining more slowly than urban crime and in fact some categories of property offenses have actually seen an uptick.
We asked Ralph A. Weisheit, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University, and Joseph F. Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, to give us their takes on what defines rural crime, what's unique about it.
What does crime look like in rural areas?
Donnermeyer: In rural areas, you are more likely to find communities with crime problems such as violence against women and drug production and there could be "agricultural crime," which is the stealing of animals and machinery and supplies. There have been enough farm crime studies that indicate the burglary rate to a homesteaded farm is probably one-fifth what it would be in Columbus, Ohio. Somebody is always there. Farms are still someplace where a family lives. But farms are three times larger than they used to be. And burglary rates to barns and storage facilities where there is no oversight are twice as high as for a home in Columbus, Ohio. With the industrialization of farming has come more crime. Farmers during their busy time, given storage patterns, create a lot of vulnerability.
Also, if you compare substance use rates by metro and non-metro areas, non-metro kids are neck-and-neck on almost every drug. Metro kids are ahead on marijuana and non-metro kids on inhalants.
Weisheit: There are two kinds of crimes that are as common in rural areas [as in urban areas]. One is domestic violence. Another is drug use. That's nationwide, an interesting one. There are all these stereotypes of drug users as inner-city minorities, but the pill problem is really dominated by whites. And it's a big issue in rural areas.
How is rural law enforcement different than urban law enforcement?
Weisheit: Rural police have a more personal connection to the people they are policing. It's common for rural police to be approached about a crime problem, even if they are not in uniform, even if they are mowing the yard. I've heard large city police say they would never live in the neighborhoods they patrol. They may not like the people they are patrolling. When I talk to police chiefs in these small towns, they will say if they want to go to the movies, they have to go to the next county, to get away, to have time alone. That also means they know more about the people they are policing. They aren't strangers. I think it would be accurate to say they often handle things informally, without writing a report.
Cities and counties are cutting even law enforcement budgets these days. Some small town police departments have disbanded. What is the impact of budget cuts to police and sheriff's departments?
Donnermeyer: We used to call it a "global effect." What I mean is the police have fewer resources in counties with higher poverty rates. Those two [factors] are moving together and you can see increases in crime, but it's hard to disengage and indicate which is more responsible. I would tend to attribute poverty as a stronger factor. And then see lessened presence of law enforcement as a tipping point factor.
Weisheit: Something that concerns me with budget cuts is that we will see more small town departments disappearing and turning over coverage to the sheriff. My concern is that as sheriffs have wider areas to be responsible for, they will lose that personal contact. [On the other hand], sheriffs are elected, which puts pressure on them to treat people well who might be voting for them.
We've talked to people where the coverage is so thin, game wardens do some of the coverage. That's happened in Illinois. The other implication of these small agencies closing up is if you live in one of these towns, you have added substantial amounts of time to the response if the sheriff has to drive across the county. In large city departments, the police will respond in three or five minutes. That's not realistic in many rural areas.
Given that a lot of rural areas aren't heavily policed, why isn't there more crime?
Donnermeyer: If you drive through these counties and everybody is at home because they don't get out much, and you think that house is more likely to have a gun, you have a deterrent. Most crime is local. It is not very likely that the criminals are coming from the city. It's more likely indigenous. Every community has a pool of potential criminals that have to be activated.