Rural law enforcement shrinkingGREELEY, Neb. — It all looked suspicious to Deputy Jon Howard in Greeley County, Neb. A vehicle was pulling a weighted-down trailer, a car was trailing — as often happens when drugs are the cargo — and the tandem was on a popular highway for drug traffickers. At 3 a.m.
By: By James MacPherson, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
GREELEY, Neb. — It all looked suspicious to Deputy Jon Howard in Greeley County, Neb. A vehicle was pulling a weighted-down trailer, a car was trailing — as often happens when drugs are the cargo — and the tandem was on a popular highway for drug traffickers. At 3 a.m.
But Howard will never know if they were hauling contraband through the sparsely populated county, even though he could have pulled them over for a taillight being out.
He let them go because he had no other officers to back him up.
“Other deputies?” Howard said. “I’m it.”
As in some other rural counties, budget cuts have devastated the staff in Greeley County, inching it closer to a sort of frontier state with no law enforcement at all. As recently as six years ago, there were three deputies, and two in 2007.
Rural law enforcement departments across the country have long had limited staffs that cover large expanses where officers sometimes drive 60 miles or more to respond to calls.
But the problem is getting worse. County sheriffs and law enforcement officials across sparsely populated Plains states say departments are dealing more than ever with dwindling funding, fewer officers and increased crime.
The lack of law enforcement has caused some departments to stop responding to some calls altogether and leave stretches of busy interstate highways unpatrolled for hours.
Some residents worry they are being targeted by out-of-town criminals who know there is scant law enforcement. And fear has crept into some towns where residents have long cherished an easygoing way of life they think may now be at risk.
“We keep our doors locked now more than we ever have,” said Joyce Berney, who has lived in the Greeley County town of Wolbach, population 240, for more than 35 years.
A recent arrest of a man for breaking into homes and stealing prescription drugs has residents concerned there’s not enough law enforcement to prevent other crimes.
In nearby Greeley, Gene Callahan’s grocery store was burglarized early this year by people who had time to try, and fail, to dislodge a safe from bolts 6 inches deep in concrete before managing to take off the safe door.
Callahan suspects they were from out of town and hit his store because they knew Greeley has no police and relies on the tiny sheriff’s office, which doesn’t patrol late at night.
“If there’s a law presence it’s not so inviting for people out of town to come in. They know what towns have cops and what ones don’t,” Callahan said.
There’s no statistics pinpointing the decline in rural law enforcement. But Scott Barker, executive director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center in Hazard, Ky., said “agencies are cutting back, and it’s safe to say that law enforcement certainly is not growing right now.”
More than half of the roughly 1 million law enforcement officers in the U.S. work for small departments.
A decades-long population decline in many rural parts of the Great Plains would seem to lessen demands on sheriff’s offices that patrol them.
Sheriffs say that isn’t happening. They point to the appearance of cybercrimes that allow people to victimize others who live in far-flung places, and a sour economy they say has increased domestic disputes and other legal problems.
In North Dakota’s Slope County, the population has declined from about 1,200 residents to 650 in the 24 years Pat Lorge has been sheriff.
“We still got problems,” he said. He and his part-time deputy often have to rely on help from officers in surrounding counties in North Dakota and Montana or the Highway Patrol. Lorge and his deputy do the same.
Greeley County Sheriff David Weeks said domestic-violence calls have jumped 30 percent or so the last couple years. Two officers are supposed to respond to those calls because they can be dangerous, but just one is usually sent because it can take an hour or so for backup from other counties to show up.
“We’ve gotten pushed around a little, but we haven’t got beat up — yet,” Weeks said.
Some calls don’t get a response at all anymore: The area no longer has a game warden. Weeks’ office doesn’t have the time to investigate hunting violations, so no one looks into them.
In other counties, officers on already-thin staffs are being pulled away from the communities they normally cover to help pick up the slack caused by state budget cuts that have left fewer state troopers patrolling major state roads.
But they don’t always have the time, so stretches of busy intestate highways can go unpatrolled for hours.
Even in areas where the economy is booming, times are tough for small departments. In the heart of North Dakota’s booming oil patch, Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said he’s lost nearly half of his dozen deputies to high-paying oil jobs. Meanwhile, the crime has increased along with the county’s population.
“We’re getting a lot more calls for service. Assaults have increased, we have a lot more bar fights right now, and thefts are starting to pick up,” Busching said. “We’re so busy we can’t keep up. We’re swamped.”
There are plenty of qualified applicants, he said, but there’s a shortage of housing they can afford. The high pay for oil-field work and the influx of those workers have put the price of rent out of the reach for the average officer.
The sheriff isn’t looking for applicants in Thomas County, Neb. Sheriff Gary Eng is the only law enforcement officer. He has no deputies and there are no police officers in the 714-square mile county.
When three escaped convicts from Indiana were believed to be hiding out in the county last year, Eng didn’t have the manpower or backup to check the farmsteads and ranches that dot the countryside.
The men were eventually chased down with help from officers in other counties. No one was harmed, but Eng knows things could have turned out differently.
“We just live with that out here,” said Eng, who added that the county has had just one law enforcement officer for years.
“You just can’t have deputies out here, because there’s no money, and it’s only going to get worse.”