Small-Town Cops Are Quitting en Masse as Police Come Under More Scrutiny

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When all five full-time police officers in tiny Kenly, N.C. handed in their resignations last week, citing conflicts with the new town manager, it made national news.

But Kenly isn’t alone. Earlier this month the police chief and the only two officers Springfield, Colo., (population: 1,325) resigned from the force. The chief, Katrina Martin, cited personal reasons for the decisions while the two officers decided to take positions somewhere else.

On Monday, five police officers and the chief resigned from the Latta Police Department in South Carolina, which local media reported could be tied to the controversy around the mayoral election in the town of 1,300 people last November.

The situation in Kenly, which is about 35 miles southeast of Raleigh, is perhaps the most clear-cut example of politics and policing causing the resignation of officers. But some justice researchers believe that taken together, the three cases show that increased scrutiny on police could be leading more small-town cops to hand in their badges.

“I’ve never seen so much criticism and disdain for the profession of police officers around the country, as I’ve seen in the last two years,” Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, who has done extensive work with police forces tells TIME. “Police officers are used to this rigid environment when they’re being told [how to do their jobs], but I think we’ve reached a boiling point.”

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These resignations come at a time when the question of how police go about their jobs has become a sticking point for many citizens. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one side argues that police are not serving their communities well under current policing models. But, as the post-pandemic crime spike continues, others argue that more aggressive tactics are needed.

It’s still not entirely clear what happened in the town of Kenly, which is home to fewer than 1,500 people. On July 20, Kenly police Chief Josh Gibson, four other full-time officers, and two town clerks all submitted their two-weeks notice. The department will be run by 3 part-time employees when the officers officially leave on Aug. 3.

“[Their departure] sends a message to the community that we as a police force were not being taken seriously by politicians,” Haberfeld says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is related to different visions of what policing should be.”

The decision to quit the force came just a month after Justine Jones, the new town manager, was hired. In the resignation letters, the officers express concern over their work environment with many of them describing it as “hostile”.

“I have enjoyed my time working at Kenly Police Department and had fully intended to remain employed with the town, but unfortunately decisions are being made which make me question what the future will hold for all town employees,” Gibson, who had been the chief for over 20 years said in his resignation letter obtained by WRAL-TV.

Gibson also said that the department is short-staffed. The police department is supposed to have eight full-time officers. He added that the environment created by Gibson made it difficult to perform his duties. Other officers said they “can no longer work under the stress” and “decisions are being made which make me question what the future will hold for all town employees.”

Neither Jones nor the mayor responded to TIME’s request for comment.

“The city is going to have to start by figuring out what happened, they need to investigate this, they need to interview the officers who left, they need to talk with the city manager before they can come up with any kind of solution to solve the problem and prevent it from happening again,” Jacinta Gau, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida says.

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The Johnston County Sheriff’s office said that it will cover the town and address any public safety concerns that may arise. Still, people in the community were distraught when this announcement was made. “They’re not just town police,” Nancy Cates, a Kenly resident said last week, according to ABC 11. “They’re our family.”

Town leaders in Kenly had an emergency meeting last week where residents had a chance to voice their concerns. Some residents defended the city manager, while others pointed out that she seemed to be against the police department.

Law enforcement defenders have framed this incident as an example of what they say is a nationwide trend of police officers quitting their jobs due to the level of scrutiny that’s been aimed at them over the past couple of years.

However, numbers don’t fully back up that assertion. That said, cities including New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington D.C. have reported trouble filling vacancies on their police foces.

A town meeting was supposed to reconvene this week in Kenly but the city council decided to wait until after the town attorney completes an investigation into what happened. The investigation will begin next week.

Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com.