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When You're the Only Cop in Town

Town

Town

Town

Ellendale, Delaware
Little River, Kansas
Seldovia, Alaska
A photographer follows three lone officers who deal with drugs, domestic violence and wayward bears in their communities.

The Frame | Filed 6:00 a.m. 10.26.2018

In partnership with USA Today’s Policing the USA

Police departments around the United States deal with a litany of challenges, such as limited resources, strained community relations and a growing opioid crisis. In hundreds of small communities nationwide, there are officers who manage all of this alone—they are one-person law enforcement agencies.

When you’re the only cop on the beat, the work can be challenging, especially responding to reports of burglaries or domestic violence without backup. “You know everybody, and you know how they are. You're seeing them at their worst, but you know how they are at their best too,” said Robin Daniels, the chief of police in Seldovia, Alaska, population 600. “You're locking up people you know.”

Much of the time, the job can also be slow-moving, dealing with the everyday routines of small town life. Photographer Harris Mizrahi spent time with three solo police chiefs to observe how they deal with the demands of policing on their own.

Bruce E. Von Goerres

Ellendale, Delaware

Population: 431

2017 arrests: 176

In 2015, Bruce Von Goerres became chief of police in small-town Ellendale, Delaware, after a 30-year career in the state police.

In the 1970s, Ellendale created its first police department, but that was shut down a decade later due to a lack of funds and wasn’t restarted until the 1990s.

Von Goerres approaches the job with a “broken-windows” approach, focusing on small, nuisance offenses that are thought to lead to more serious crimes. Von Goerres most often deals with property crimes and drugs. He’s regularly confronted with the local effects of the opioid epidemic—drug deals, prostitution and overdoses. After a close call with a woman who overdosed in the backseat of a car, he now carries Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose.

Von Goerres graduated from the Delaware State Police training academy in 1983.

Ellendale’s police department is housed in a small room in the same building as its town hall. Often he heads seven miles away to Milton to process his arrests where he can use their live-scan fingerprinting station and video conference with a magistrate.

After the arrest, Von Goerres allows the man to collect his belongings.

Once a month, Von Goerres attends the Sussex County Delaware Police Chiefs’ meeting where representatives from nearby departments discuss emerging crime trends.

Von Goerres picks up a patient from a nearby hospital and transports him to a mental health facility an hour away. The state police handle complaints in his jurisdiction until his return.

Chad Johanning

Little River, Kansas

Population: About 600

2017 arrests: 9

In rural Nickerson, Kansas, where Chad Johanning grew up, the only law enforcement officer around was a county sheriff. It wasn't until after he graduated high school that the town hired its own cop.

Now he’s a one-man police department in a small Kansas town. After years of working for a half-dozen police and sheriffs’ departments in Central Kansas, he took the job in Little River last year when the chief there retired.

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Little River, 230 miles southwest of Kansas City, Kansas, has a total area of less than half a square mile. Once a salt-mining town, it now consists of a few businesses—a local cafe, a pub and a small post office.

Patrolling the town, Johanning handles a wide range of cases, from school fights and loud music complaints to domestic battery.

In Kansas, gun owners can carry a concealed firearm, even without a license, and Johanning says that plays into how he approaches policing. “My philosophy is as long as you don't pull it on me, I won't pull it on you,” he said. But after school shootings around the country, the principal of the local high school expressed concern, and Johanning now holds active shooter trainings for the students and teachers there.

Not all of his policing focuses on crime. Sometimes Johanning provides a service that some people in his community desperately need: He listens.

Twice a week, Johanning meets with fire Chief Russell Stephenson, left, and former police chief B.J. Smith, right.

They gather at Rice County Builders, a home improvement store, to discuss local crime and to catch up on each other’s lives.

Johanning makes stops throughout the morning to speak with residents; relationships are essential in such a small community.

Every day at noon, a bell rings in Little River, and Johanning heads to Oliver’s Beef and Brew to meet residents for lunch. “What I enjoy most about being here is how everybody’s got my back,” he said.

During his shift, Johanning discusses the day’s schedule with Sue Peters, the city clerk, and Lucas Baumbach, the city superintendent.

Little River has a low crime rate. As of July, Johanning had only arrested three people this year. Here, he writes a ticket charging a driver with failure to stop at a stop sign.

Johanning started a high school cadet program. He works with two students, including his son, Evan (middle), who wants to become a U.S. Marine.

During a recent “Suicide Hill Run,” a local 5K and 10K race, Johanning directed traffic with Rice County Sheriff’s Deputy Monty Payne and city superintendent Lucas Baumbach.

After a quiet day, Johanning lets the police dispatch operator know that he will be at home if she needs him and closes up the office.

“The small town feel of life is right here,” Johanning said. “Everybody watches out for each other. Everybody knows each other, which is good and bad.”

Robin Daniels

Seldovia, Alaska

Population: Close to 600 year-round residents

2017 arrests: 6

Two years ago, after 17 years as a police officer in Alabama, Robin Daniels responded to a job posting for a police chief in Seldovia, Alaska. He got the job.

The only way to reach the town, which is on a peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska, is by air or sea—no roads connect it to neighboring communities. Sustained by the commercial fishing industry, Seldovia has dubbed itself “Alaska’s Best Kept Secret.”

The challenges Daniels faces in Seldovia are sometimes vastly different from what he experienced in Alabama. On his third day on the job, some women from town brought a live bear into the police office, and it got loose.

But some of the same issues that he dealt with in Alabama—namely opioid addiction—have followed him to his new job. Last year, he had to handle a case where a young man died from a drug overdose. “It was heroin combined with fentanyl,” he said. “It just really demonstrated to the community in general the dangers of it, that it can happen here. It can happen quickly.”

Mornings are quiet for Daniels. Usually, he starts the day by fielding phone calls. He then conducts a patrol through the town and some of the recreational areas, including beaches and parks, in a Ford F-150 truck. Afterwards, he stops by the office to check messages and meet with residents.

The Seldovia police department—that is, Daniels—shares a building with fire and rescue, as well as the public library.

Daniels needs equipment that officers in other states might not need, such as shellcracker ammunition to scare off bears.

Several months after he first arrived in Seldovia, Daniels was injured when an intoxicated man banged on his door one night and started wrestling with him. After he settled the man down, Daniels had to call the state troopers to carry the man in a boat across the bay to Homer, the nearest town where the court sits.

Daniels mends his bulletproof vest in his kitchen. His department has a small budget for equipment, so he often provides his own.

Daniels says the most difficult part of his job is dealing with domestic violence in a small town.