AMERICAN VALUES: How law enforcement in this small town grapples with anti-police reforms: ‘Hands are tied’

A small town police force said it is still grappling against the ongoing push from anti-police activists, federal and state lawmakers to reform law enforcement practices. 

“The people and the organizations that want these policies – I understand that there’s a lot that can be fixed, and I think there’s a lot of things that can be changed,” Noel Marshal Randy Wilson told Fox News. “But here’s the question: How far do you go with it to where you’re tying our hands to where we can’t do anything?” 

Wilson has worked in law enforcement for over 30 years, and in 2019 was elected marshal of Noel, Missouri, a small town in the Ozarks with a population under 2,000. One of the few remaining local marshals in the state, Wilson is responsible for all general law enforcement duties in Noel.

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A big believer in “old school” community policing, he said fostering relationships with residents and becoming trusted figure in town makes it easier to spot and defuse potential problems before they occur without having to use force. 

The rural community has a diverse population, with many of its residents being migrants from South America and Africa who came to Noel to work at the Tyson poultry plant in town. However, when social justice protests and calls to defund the police broke out across the country in May 2020, after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, Wilson was not concerned about his own residents turning against him.

“Someone said, ‘Well what’s different about you and everyplace else?’” Wilson recalled being asked. “I said, ‘Cause I’m elected and who do you think elects me?’”

Marshal Randy Wilson said law enforcement officers need to revert back to thinking of policing as “public service” and do more to help their communities beyond just pursuing crime. (Teny Sahakian/Fox News )

In response to the widespread calls for reform, in 2022 President Biden signed an executive order that banned choke holds and limited the use of no-knock warrants for federal officers. It also required reports to a database of misconduct from federal officers, and encouraged, but did not require, similar reports from local law enforcement agencies.

Missouri lawmakers have also battled to pass reform in the state to address systemic racism in policing and remove barriers to disciplining officers for misconduct. 

It’s happening here too,” Sergeant Travis Sheppard told Fox News. “Our hands are tied on a lot of things.” 

“Used to be, even for misdemeanors, you could put them in jail. Now it’s cite and release them,” he added. “From when I first started in law enforcement back in the early 2000s, it’s totally different today.”

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But despite state-wide changes in policing, and the pressure from federal lawmakers, most reforms still occur at the local level. 

As an elected official, Wilson has more control over policing procedures than a Chief of Police would and says he has a very good working relationship with the mayor and city council. 

George Floyd protestors

Protesters gathered across the country to call for justice for George Floyd gather on May 26, 2020, in Minneapolis.  (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP, File)

“We sit down, we discuss things,” Wilson said. “It’s easier being elected because you can say, okay, here’s the way you’re telling me to do it, here’s the way I see it, can we compromise here to where we’re both getting what we want and we’re making it work?” 

Both Wilson and Sheppard said instead of lawmakers implementing blanket reforms, which can sometimes hinder police or make them hesitant to act in fear of facing consequences, legislators need to consult more with actual officers and even citizens when tackling criminal justice reform. 

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“I don’t think legislators know exactly what happens out here in the field,” Sheppard said. “They know what they’re told.”

“These legislators ain’t been out here in a patrol car. They haven’t rode around. They haven’t seen the stuff that we see,” he added. “So yeah, I think a lot of it is they’re going with what they’re told, going with what they believe, instead of what they know.”

Wilson said improving policing should be a process that involves entire communities. 

“It’s a community effort,” he said. “If you’re not working together, then where is your community going to be at?.”

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