U.S. hometowns strained as police go off to war

By Andrea Hopkins, June 14, 2007

ALEXANDRIA, Ky (Reuters) - Police Chief Keith Hill respects Americans who have left civilian jobs to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the fact that so many of them are police officers means he's been short-staffed for years.

"We have one detective on his second deployment. He went once, then came back, then went again, and he's just been extended until July 09. Another officer was gone all of 2005," said Hill, who oversees Campbell County's 31-person police force in the rolling hills of northern Kentucky.

The prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put pressure on the National Guard, whose citizen-soldiers can be called away from civilian jobs for months or years at a time to fight beside regular soldiers in war zones.

About 16 percent of the 182,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are members of the National Guard.

Communities across America have been especially hard-hit by the deployment of some 24,000 police officers since September 11, 2001. Police officers make up 5.1 percent of the National Guard and military reserve -- one of the top civilian occupations, according to Defense Department data.

Kentucky's Hill said crime rates have not gone up because police are short-handed. But he admits that the softer side of law enforcement has been sacrificed.

"We do fewer crime prevention talks. Community outreach suffers," he said.

Detective Tom Nitschke, one of Campbell County's two remaining detectives, has felt the crunch first hand.

"The community expects the same service and you have to provide it -- with less people," Nitschke said from the department's tiny detectives bureau, where one desk sits empty.


Repeated deployments to war zones do more than mess with police schedules -- the loss of just one officer can devastate a small town, where police forces are shoestring operations and the jobs of the town's "first responders" often overlap.

"Especially in small communities, you may have a person in the National Guard, working for the fire or police department, who may also be a part-time ambulance driver. So when you lose one person to deployment, you actually lose several functions," said National Guard spokesman Randal Noller.

In 2005, police chief Jose Pequeno and officer David Wentworth represented the totality of law enforcement in tiny Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, population 600. When Pequeno was deployed to Iraq in May 2005, Wentworth was alone.

"I juggled. I worked every day and was on call nights and weekends," said Wentworth, a 43-year-old father of four. "I missed out of some of my children's events because I was working. But the town is very good and we managed."

Then, in March 2006, Pequeno was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Ramadi. While Pequeno remains Sugar Hill's nominal police chief, he's still undergoing treatment for head injuries and is unable to work.

A new police officer has been hired to help out, but Wentworth, whose 19-year-old son has just been deployed to Iraq with the Army Rangers, refuses to discuss the possibility that his chief may never return to work.

"I'd just rather not go there, if you can understand," he said.


Police across the United States say the wars have also robbed police academies of fresh faces.

"A lot of the people that are given by nature to public service are serving their country overseas," said James Valiquet, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. "In Manchester, our biggest city, they're trying to fill 25 positions and they only had three or four viable candidates."

Arizona, one of the fastest-growing U.S. states, faces a similar shortage. But replacing a deployed officer is nearly impossible anyway. By law, employers must leave a Guard member's job open while the worker is deployed.

Even temporarily filling a police job is hampered by the obstacle course of recruitment, training and certification required by most police forces, said Ralph Tranter, executive director of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police.

"The training curve is so great," said Tranter. "I'd say Guard and Reserve service has affected just about every police department's ability to respond to calls for service."

Still, the police officers left behind to fill the void of their deployed colleagues say the sacrifices are worth it.

"It's an honor, our way of helping those guys who are over there serving the country," said Richard Whitford, acting chief of the Fort Thomas police department in Kentucky, which lost an officer for nearly two years. "It puts a strain on the smaller departments, but it's just something we do."

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