Did you have an immediate answer, one you would swear to in a court of law? Are you sure that you're right? Or is there just a tiny doubt in your mind, one that suggests that maybe, just maybe, it could go either way. On some occasions, it's possible that your answer doesn't hold up, because the other guy might be more successful at stopping crime....
In reality, there is no real answer for this question. The correct answer is it all depends on the training and the experience of the law enforcement officer involved.
Small town cops are often on the front line when crime begins to move into an area. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of drug trafficking. Often it's the border states that take the hardest hit when drug smugglers are looking to exploit opportunities to transport their products into the country. They often look for unpopulated rural areas they can control.
But you'll also find similar activities along any seacoast. For some fishermen, the dwindling fish supply makes them desperate, and when they're asked to pick up cargo dropped off miles from land, it's easy to convince oneself that there's really no harm. After all, it's not like they're selling the drugs on the street corner. They're merely moving product from Point A to Point B.
Part of the history of smuggling across borders and along the seacoast comes from the Prohibition era, when liquor was the commodity. Very often, families were engaged in bringing in the shipments of alcohol dropped by boat and storing it in their barns, warehouses, and even ice houses. When people grow up in that culture, believing that these criminal activities are the "norm", it's hard to break the cycle it creates. Money laundering is often just a side line for the same people who took all that Prohibition money and invested it. When people come to depend on that income to survive, it enables that mindset to flourish. Thus, it's not uncommon for families to pass the baton to the next generation, and the one after that.
What doe that mean? Very often, those small idyllic towns have a very dark side when organized crime already has a strong hold on them. (This is often no different than a big city where crime territories were set up long ago.) The success of the criminal enterprises infiltrates local politics. As people move on and up, gaining in respectability and financial clout, they continue to spread their tentacles, ensnaring the innocent, the naïve believers among us.
A good cop not only needs to know the history of the community, but also the political alliances and pulse of the population. In places where the citizens are willing and able to keep their cities and towns free of the criminal element, cops can do a lot to keep everyone safer.
Big city cops, especially those who aren't patrolling a regular beat, often are charged with combating much larger crime issues than the seemingly ordinary, everyday crimes of small town cops. Their focus may be limited to the types of crimes they investigate, and sometimes that means they wear blinders that prevent them from noticing new patterns of criminal activities that small town cops see right away. Gangs often claim territory and turf wars are common. Crime bosses often extort money in exchange for protection of small business owners. People often come to the city, looking to hook up with sellers of stolen goods, drugs, and sex. The big picture can get lost in the big city, where cops are assigned to only look at one type of crime.
It's not that there are necessarily more crimes committed per square mile in the city than in the country, when you balance it against the population affected. Very often, the chances of you being the victim of the crime might be about the same in either place, statistically speaking. But in the city, the density of the population in a concentrated area sometimes creates greater opportunities for criminals to commit crimes, and that could make you an easier target for criminals. If you are aware that there are more predators per city block because there are more people, you'll be more alert about protecting yourself.
Perhaps that's why we are always so shocked when a terrible crime occurs in a small town. We want to believe that "murder doesn't happen here." And yet, every once in a while, it does. That's because there can be despicable villains anywhere. Sometimes, it's just easier to spot them before they act, when they stand out to small town cops, who then have a chance to intercede and prevent crimes.
The real problem is that whenever crime flourishes, whether it's in a small town or a big city, it becomes an invitation to organized crime syndicates, looking for the next big thing. It's the nature of the beast. Evil attracts evil when it runs unchecked.
Good cops are mindful of the power of the people in assisting them to keep crime down. Knowing your neighbors is important, because those neighbors will often serve as your eyes and ears, alerting you to changes. Those little things that just don't seem right to Mr. Brown are often the warning signs of a much bigger problem arriving on the horizon. Utilizing the strengths of community policing, by interacting with citizens and heading off trouble before it establishes a foothold can go a long way towards improving life for everyone.
Think big city cops are better at stopping crime? Sometimes they're so busy, they miss the little things that small town cops notice right away. Take, for example, a common scam in tourist areas in the big city. Car break-ins are often routine, especially among petty criminals looking for items to pawn to get money for their next drug fix. It's "snatch and grab" time. When city criminals target out-of-state cars, there's sometimes a benefit. Why? Most out-of-state visitors are less likely to report the crime to the police and follow through. They go back home, call their insurance agent, file a claim for the damage to car windows and for the missing items. The individual insurance companies providing coverage aren't necessarily going to track the number of clients facing this situation in a particular city and demand that cops respond appropriately. Victims have little recourse or protection from this type of big city crime, especially if they are assaulted during the robbery.
Another problem is that in the big city, sometimes cops are overly concerned with year-end crime statistics, especially if the bosses want to look good, so they play down the repeated car break-ins, rather than upping their patrols in the affected areas. I once heard an police intelligence unit officer insist that the car break-ins were harmless. "The kids have to eat," was his explanation for why his police department had no reason to stop it.
Of course, if you walk around the park and count twenty or more smashed car windows on a single evening, you will come to a very different explanation for the crimes. This is all about money, the effort is organized, and the thieves are acting with impunity. The real losers are all the victims whose cars and trust are violated because the cops want to look the other way. Make it difficult for an out-of-state visitor to report the crime and follow up on the subsequent investigation and the cases get dropped. Everyone is happy, save for the tourists visiting the city and the insurance companies paying out. Of course, when the insurance rates go up for the victims, they take yet another hit and the blame goes on them for parking in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not a very "people-friendly" approach from law enforcement, but then strategies for fighting crime always originate at the top and filter down. Good police commissioners and chiefs always want to utilize their resources to benefit their communities. Bad ones are content to look good for the press and the politicians. That's usually an indication of a corruption problem, especially when they're in cahoots with organized crime.
That's usually not the case in small towns. A rash of car break-ins is often a warning that crime is moving in, and many small town police departments will make a big, very public show of patrolling the areas, knowing that it sends not only a message to the bad guys, but also to the good guys. "This is not going to happen in our community."
The truth is that we're only as safe as the kind of cops we hire to protect our communities. When good cops take on the job, whether it's in the big city or the small town, we all win. Good "people skills" are a must for any cop who actually wants to cut the crime rate, not only because it's easier to get cooperation and support from the general public that way, but because there are opportunities to prevent crime by reaching out to folks who are disenfranchised or disconnected. No good cop will ever be able to stop every person determined to carry out an act of violence. Sometimes the odds are just against it. But good cops work hard to make a difference. They know that when the citizens perceive the local department as invested in making life safer for all, they are far more likely to succeed in doing so. People need to trust their local law enforcement and feel that the cops have their backs, every bit as much as police officers need to trust and feel that the general population has faith in their abilities to do the job.
In the end, good policing is about cops and citizens having a good working relationship and a goal to make the community safe, whether it's within a big city or a small town. The smarter cops are about human behavior, the better. An ounce of prevention is often better than a pound of cure, and staying vigilant by paying attention to the pulse of a community is sometimes just a simple as saying, "How's life treating you today, Mrs. Johnson?"