Small towns face rise in crime, drop in law enforcement
FERTILE, Minn. -- Crime in rural areas is increasing. Simultaneously, the presence of law enforcement is shrinking.
This town of 840 just outside the Red River Valley and the gateway to lake country, known for its flowers, popular county fair and scenic golf course, is a prime example of those conflicting trends. At least it has been the past few months.
In late spring and early summer, a flurry of crimes shook residents of this tidy and pastoral town. Lewd graffiti, a burglary at the Polk County Fair office, a drug store robbery and a series of thefts from unlocked cars and garages happened in town. And, outside the city limits, a barn of Amish farmers was a victim of arson.
The crime outbreak started about one year after Fertile dropped its local law enforcement. Officials say the two developments can't be directly linked -- that they still may have happened if Fertile had kept its officer. But they concede the spree has been a wakeup call to a changing world.
"I've never felt unsafe in Fertile, but it was a little disconcerting to have that wave of crime," said Rod Thoreson, publisher of the Fertile Journal.
Only two police forces remain
Crookston and East Grand Forks are the only Polk County towns with their own police force. Fosston, the county's third most populous city, has two officers through a contract with the county sheriff's department that costs $150,000. Fertile had a similar arrangement with the county for one deputy until March 2010.
The contract dedicated 40 hours to patrolling Fertile, with the added requirement that the deputy live in town or nearby for prompt response. Without the contract, law enforcement's presence in Fertile is mostly in response to calls for assistance.
Money is the reason for the change.
"To put an officer in a car would cost us about $100,000 a year," city administrator John Frohrip said. An officer would mean a 25 percent increase in Fertile's general fund budget.
Salary, vehicle, equipment, training and licensing requirements contribute to the increase in the cost of law enforcement. "The old joke is that you used to hire Fred and put a bubble on his Buick," Frohrip said.
Or, as former city councilman Dan Wilkens put it, "Back in the day, you could pretty much slap a badge on anyone."
While costs have increased for small towns, revenues haven't. The loss of local government aid (LGA) is well documented. And, although Fertile has held its own for population, cost inflation has exceeded property tax growth.
"If you're not growing, property taxes are stagnant," Frohrip said. "With an older population on fixed incomes, there's not much room to make up the difference. We've fought real hard here to stand still."
Fertile isn't alone. In 2008, the police chiefs in McIntosh and Erskine retired. They weren't replaced, leaving the two towns as reliant as Fertile on the county sheriff's department.
"Presence makes a difference," Polk County Sheriff Barb Erdman said. "But the consensus was that the same things probably would have occurred in Fertile whether law enforcement was placed there or not."
Like the towns, counties also have budget problems. Erdman said she has 22 officers, 4.5 fewer than at its peak.
But the loss of police officers is more dramatic. When Chief Deputy Karl Erickson started in the department in 1983, towns as small as Mentor, Winger and Lengby had police departments. When they disband, the result is predictable.
Since the Erskine and McIntosh departments folded, "We're seeing more (criminal) activity there now," Erickson said.
'Sign of the times'
Arrests have been made in all of the Fertile incidents. The crimes are a "sign of the times," in the words of Erdman.
"It's a different world we live in now, dealing with issues we didn't deal with 20 years ago," she said. "We see some of the same things you used to see only in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"People need to lock their doors, mark their property, be diligent and call us."
Thoreson admits that he habitually leaves his keys in his vehicle, a sign of the trusting nature in small towns. Wilkens, a property theft victim, said he used to do the same.
"I figured that if someone took my car, it was because they needed it (for an emergency)," he said. "I don't think that way anymore.
"We have to take care of ourselves. We need to keep our places locked and maybe put in security cameras. We have to change with the times."
Erdman said that has already happened with Fertile residents' response to the crime flurry. "The public was really engaged, providing us lots of tips," she said. "We were able to get suspects in custody relatively quickly."
Mayor Brian Nephew said he was most disappointed that the accused live in Fertile and the area. "You like to think this was being done by people who live somewhere else," he said. "It's more of an issue when it's your own community members."
Ryan Bakken is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.