The World of Small-Town Policing
I’m a rabid fan of crime fiction, especially hard-boiled procedurals. Back in the ’70s, I cut my literary teeth on Joe Wambaugh and Elmore Leonard. These days my favorites include Mike Connelly, Don Winslow, Tami Hoag, and T. Jefferson Parker. Each of them is known for procedural detail and characters steeped in authenticity. I’m particularly drawn to Hoag’s Nikki Liska, probably because of our shared Midwestern heritage. Parker’s Charlie Hood is another favorite. Charlie and I patrolled neighboring jurisdictions and spent many a graveyard shift pulled up car door to car door, just hanging out. Of course, I’m flesh and blood. Charlie is…well. You’re a reader. You get the idea.
All these writers set their tales in the big city. Places like Los Angeles and New York City. Understandable because that’s where the action is. Where Detective Dennis “Denny” Malone works his crew and runs the streets of North Manhattan. Where Harry Bosch can gaze down on the lights of Los Angeles from his cliffside home in the Hollywood Hills. No doubt about it. You’ve got to love metropolitan noir.
These days I write my own crime fiction, and I’ve really enjoyed digging into the world of small-town policing. It is true that most cops in America work for large urban departments. But, it’s also true that most police departments are really quite small. In some ways, small-town cops are the heart and soul of American law enforcement.
Nationwide, there are over 15,000 local law enforcement agencies. Half have fewer than ten sworn officers. More than 20 percent have fewer than five officers. The cops who work in these departments face their own sort of drama and create their own excitement. I have to admit, after decades as a cop in a county of over 3,000,000 people, I’m a bit jealous.
Small-town cops are usually homegrown, patrolling the same streets where they once rode Schwinn bicycles. They hold a personal connection with the community that can’t be taught in a police academy. These men and women stuck around and now protect and serve their own. I can only wonder how it feels to police the town of your childhood. To cross paths with people you knew back in youthful glory days. To respond to a 9-1-1 call that comes from an elderly woman who, in her own younger years, knew you as the kid from down the street.
This affinity for small-town cops led to the creation of my own cast of characters. Ben Sawyer and Tia Suarez grew up in the small town of Newberg, Wisconsin, although fifteen years and a couple of social worlds apart. They each ran off to have their own version of big world adventure. Ben spent over ten years working for the Oakland PD until an incident of abusive force got him fired. Tia joined the Marines and did two tours in a forward operating area in Afghanistan. Both eventually returned to their Midwestern roots and joined up with the Newberg PD. There they face the same challenges cops might find in any metropolitan department: co-workers of questionable character, along with local politicians who often put community reputation ahead of solving serious crimes.
The allure of the city is hard to resist, but when a killer does come to small-town America, the body is just as cold and the blood runs just as red. That’s when it’s good to have a hard-knocking street cop the likes of Tia Suarez or Ben Sawyer to step up and work the case.
So next time you decide to ride along with a cop in the pages of a crime novel, give some thought to the heartland. The towns may be small, but the cops can still come off as larger than life.
Neal Griffin is a retired law enforcement officer in San Diego County and the L.A. Times bestselling author of the Newberg Series published by Forge Books. Bookreporter wrote: “Neal Griffin is a gem. He combines firsthand experience with a storyteller’s voice and a small-town America setting to create a book that you will be compelled to read in one sitting.”
Neal’s most recent novel, By His Own Hand, was released in April 2018; Tess Gerritsen wrote of it, “Add Neal Griffin to your list of must-read crime writers.”
Learn more at Neal’s website: nealgriffin.com