“Risk It Out, Risk It Out”: Occupational and Organizational Stresses in Rural Policing

Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
“Risk It Out, Risk It
2018, Vol. 21(4) 415–439
! The Author(s) 2018
Out”: Occupational and
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611118772268
Organizational Stresses
in Rural Policing
Rosemary Ricciardelli1
In rural areas, police experience unique work-related health and safety risks attrib-
utable to a multitude of factors, ranging from inaccessible backup to navigating
inclement weather alongside geographic obstacles. Although the result of institution-
al and organizational structures, operational (job content) and organizational (job
context) risk must be recontextualized in the rural context. In the current study,
I contextualize understandings of risk, referring to a lack of safety shaped by either a
physical, administrative, legal, or emotional feeling of vulnerability—or a combination
of such—for rural officers that results from occupational experiences of understaff-
ing and insufficient material resources. Drawing on transcripts from 14 focus groups
with 49 officers across rank, I extrapolate the effects of understaffing on officer
experiences of work-role overload and the resulting stress. Findings reveal how
officers’ perceptions of risk are impacted by such factors, and how risk is interpreted
as either preventable (i.e., organizational) or unavoidable (i.e., operational). In this
context, risk knowledges of occupational realities shape the occupational role and
well-being of officers working in rural and remote detachments. Preliminary policy
implications are presented.
1Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Memorial University, St. John’s,
Newfoundland, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Rosemary Ricciardelli, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Memorial
University, St. John’s, Newfoundland A1C 5S7, Canada.
Email: rricciardell@mun.ca

Police Quarterly 21(4)
occupational stress, organizational stress, rural, remote policing, work-role overload,
Policing is widely recognized as an occupation laced with operational risk tied to
the job content (e.g., responding to calls for service) and organizational elements
tied to job context (e.g., staffing needs, paramilitary structures). Officers expe-
rience varied forms of occupational stress and work-related risks to their health
and safety that together inform operational effectiveness (Duxbury & Higgins,
2001, 2012; Houdmont, 2016). Researchers support that organizational (job
context), not operational (job content), nuances of police work are leading
sources of officer stress—the “niggling aspects of the work environment that
pervade police organizations because of the structural arrangements and social
life inside the organization” (Shane, 2010, p. 815; see also Collins & Gibbs, 2003;
Kop, Euwema, & Schaufeli, 1999; Symonds, 1970). In the United States, for
example, scholars identified that critical incidents were less associated with stress
than organizational stressors such as how officers feel they are treated by man-
agement (Gershon, Barocas, Canton, Li, & Vlahov, 2009) and were tied to
feelings of hopelessness (Violanti et al., 2016). Staffing has been put forth as a
challenge for police organizations (Hollis & Wilson, 2015; Wilson, 2012; Wilson
& Weiss, 2014) but has not been analyzed qualitatively in relation to officer
stress. In addition, researchers in the area have tended to study police staffing
within urban or metropolitan areas rather than in the context of rural, remote,
or Northern policing where operational and organizational risk must be recon-
textualized. Internationally, researchers found that across police services, officer
experiences of stress are tied to organizational factors including promotion,
bureaucracy, workload, and a perception of their work as unappreciated
(Brough, 2004; Brough & Williams, 2007; Brown & Campbell, 1994; Cotton
& Hart, 2003).
Focusing exclusively on police officers working in rural, remote, and
Northern communities, I unpack interpretations of occupational risk operation-
alized as a lack of safety shaped by either a physical, administrative, legal, or
emotional feeling of vulnerability—or a combination of such—that results from
on-duty experiences. Drawing on transcripts from focus groups with officers
across rank (from constables to inspectors), I explore the role of understaffing
and insufficient material resources to demonstrate the nuances of the work-role
overload that rural police experience and the resulting implications; in
particular, how diverse stressors are understood as preventable and others
as unavoidable. In this context, I show how risk knowledges of occupational

realities shape the occupational role and well-being of officers working in rural
and remote detachments. I begin with a contextualization of rural and
remote policing and the concept of work-role overload. Next, I review the
extant literature on understaffing and police staffing models drawing attention
to challenges to such models in the context of rural policing. After presenting
the methods and findings, drawing attention to the role of understaffing
in experiences of physical, legal, administrative, and personal vulnerabilities,
I discuss the implications of understaffing on officer well-being and risk experi-
ences drawing heed to the diverse vulnerabilities officers are susceptible to when
understaffed—each compounded by inadequate material resources. I conclude
with preliminary policy implications.
Rural and Remote Policing
The fact that the majority of policing research has been concentrated in urban
centers (Weisheit, Falcone, & Wells, 1994) hinders knowledge production on
how structural and cultural aspects of rurality shape policing and the unique
risks rural officers encounter (Oliver, 2004; Oliver & Meier, 2009). Rural,
remote, and Northern regions are distinctive in their geography (e.g., terrain,
size), isolation, and sparse population yet are not homogenous in nature: Some
jurisdictions (e.g., small-boat fisheries communities) experience economic and
population decline, and others (e.g., large-scale industrial resource extraction
projects) are experiencing somewhat of an economic boom (Smith, 2010).
Each community sits within a distinctive larger sociopolitical context that
shapes both the kinds of work available and the conditions under which that
work is carried out, with implications for occupational health and safety.
Thus, policing in said areas varies with the specifics of the location, population
needs, and the greater context—from economic conditions to accessible resour-
ces (Weisheit, Falcone, & Wells, 2005; Yarwood, 2015).
Further creating new policing “challenges,” some remote areas can be acces-
sible by air or boat exclusively, others require the use of snow vehicles, and all
have distinctive cultural underpinnings often rooted in the geographic landscape
and localized history (Weisheit et al., 2005). As such, nuanced risk exists as road
conditions may be poor or nonexistent, communication technology may have
impaired functionality, and response times for police service provision can be
lengthy and costly. Thus, policing must be redefined to meet population and
geographic demands (Bristow, 1982; Weisheit et al., 1994). This includes
addressing the greater availability and ownership of guns, the diversities in
criminal activities, the specific social climate, and the presence of poverty
(Bell, 1989; R. Davis & Potter, 1991; Weisheit et al., 1994). Given that rurality
is shaped by a cultural context of familiarity (e.g., citizens know one another)
and a sense of community and belonging (Jobes, 2003; Wooff, 2015), rural
police tend to live in proximity to the neighborhoods they patrol, are familiar

Police Quarterly 21(4)
with local communities, and develop strong bonds with the population over time
(Osgood & Chambers, 2003).
Rural and remote policing, then, engenders a multitude of diverse challenges
for police including feelings of isolation exacerbated by poor access to commu-
nication infrastructure like Internet and cell phone coverage. The roles of police
officers tend to be more variable where some may feel they are serving as agents
of law enforcement at one moment and as social workers or peace keepers the
next (Huey & Ricciardelli, 2015; Pelfrey, 2007; Wooff, 2015). In some commu-
nities, a police department may include only two members and these members
tend to perform functions that would be performed by different professionals in
urban areas, often a response to the absence of social or other emergency service
providers (Weisheit et al., 1994).
Organization Stresses: Understaffing and Lack of
Material Resources
Internationally, scholars document a need for more police officers and equip-
ment across diverse police services (Sinha, 1981; Verimliliklerinin, _Ile €

Ulkemen, & Gu¨ltekin); however, such studies tend to focus on large police
agencies or urban policing rather than small detachments in rural and remote
areas (Wilson & Heinonen, 2011). Although police staffing and the management
of officers is gaining traction as a major topic at police association meetings
(Wilson & Grammich, 2009), it remains an overlooked and under-prioritized
aspect of police administration (Hollis & Wilson, 2015; Wilson & Heinonen,
2011). Researchers studying staffing challenges tend to focus on recruitment,
retention, and attrition (Egan, 2005; Jordan, Fridell, Faggiani, & Kubu, 2009;
Scrivner, 2006; Spielman,...

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