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Sheriffs Take On Rural Patrol Challenge

Unlike their city police colleagues, many of our nation’s elected sheriffs preside over far-stretching jurisdictions with limited resources. Crime-free rural patrol is the picture conjured up by the sheriffs of the media, such as Mayberry’s Andy Griffith, but the reality is far from the folklore.

Sheriffs have learned to contend with limited manpower and a dwindling source of local government funding. Coupled with vast expanses of territory and increased demands for police services, sheriffs and their dedicated personnel have had to become creative in order to meet constituents’ mandate for quality law enforcement.

Holding the enviable position of actually having adequate resources is the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office. Responsible for a whopping 20,160 square miles, the largest geographical county in the nation, the California county has 1,093 deputies to provide services to a 1,757,000 population spread out over the unincorporated areas, 24 incorporated cities, and 13 contract service districts replete with an abundance of mountains and ranches.

The territory is large and, according to Public Information Officer Jim Bryant, patrol deputies logged 16,300,584 miles in 1995 covering it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the sheriffs do not share the coffers of San Bernardino County.

In Wyoming, Park County Sheriff Bill Brewer has seen his 6,400 square mile county’s valuation plummet from $750 million in 1985 to the present $280 million. Such a drop impacts his budget negatively as his agency has been cut back fiscally each year.“We have eight people less than we did 10 years ago,” lamented Sheriff Brewer, a former City of Powell, Wyoming, police officer and Wyoming Highway Patrol officer who has worn the sheriff’s star for over 20 years. He has a total of 35 people in his office: 14 in patrol, 10 in the jail, and five in dispatch, as well as two cooks.

In Burke County, North Dakota, the presence of one of three 24-hour border passages to Canada keeps Sheriff Fred Marquardt and his four-person sheriff’s office busy. His office also provides contract law enforcement services to three small cities located in the 3,000 population, 1,100 square mile county on the Saskatchewan, Canada border.“We’ve learned to prioritize since we can’t be everywhere,” explained the former university law enforcer who has served as sheriff since June 1989.

With one of the busiest per deputy call volumes in the southwestern U.S., Sheriff Benjamin L. Montano has been forced to become an innovator to stretch out his resources. The two-term sheriff of the 2,500 square mile, 121,000 population County of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which covers the state capital of Santa Fe, has recognized the hard work done by the 40 deputies in his patrol division (there are 72 sworn personnel total).

“The guys are tired answering all the 911 calls, but that’s police work and we all do the best we can with what we have. It’s not pretty,” said Sheriff Montano who served as a City of Santa Fe police officer prior to his election.

Alabama’s Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, like the others, faces a large geography which appears daunting to many officers from more populated areas. Deputies are getting more calls and have found themselves to be 911 response oriented, as in Santa Fe County. A thinking approach is critical as the manpower is not available to surmount problems when a multitude of calls are received simultaneously.

“Our deputies have had to learn to use judgment because backup is further away and law enforcement visibility is lower than in a city,” commented Shelby County Captain Chris Curry from his office in Columbiana, Alabama.

The six-year veteran said his 75 total sworn deputy agency with 38 patrol deputies to cover an 800 square mile, 130,000 population county immediately adjacent to metropolitan Birmingham. He added that the time for general patrol is rapidly dwindling in the face of increased calls for service without a commensurate deputy increase.

Mutual Aid

One common way that sheriffs have met the challenge of problems caused by geography gaps is by mutual aid pacts reached with other area law enforcement agencies.Santa Fe County, a heavily violent, call-laden jurisdiction relies extensively on officers from the New Mexico State Police, bordering sheriff’s offices, and several local tribal police forces. Cross commissioning has enabled those less busy officers to provide back-up to the call-driven deputies of Santa Fe County.

Park County uses the deputized officers of the Powell and Cody Police Departments and also gets back-up from the Wyoming Highway Patrol to help their 14 patrol deputies (there are 35 total people in the agency).

Wisely not becoming complacent with their size, San Bernardino County has also welcomed assistance from fellow law enforcers. The sheriff’s public information officer, Jim Bryant, indicated that officers with the California Highway Patrol and two large military base police contingents, such as 29 Palms, lend a hand, as do rangers with the United States Forest Service. Even Nevada officers are invited to cross the state line and assist.

The four-man Statenville, Georgia-based Echols County Sheriff’s Office, 20 miles east of Valdosta, Georgia, actively participates in a five area county regional drug task force and relies heavily on the Georgia State Patrol. Echols County Sheriff Barry Sasser encouraged fellow strapped sheriffs to explore encouraging their state police/highway patrols to handle the state roads in their counties.

Resident Deputies

Given the distances, sheriffs find their manpower even more thinly distributed as they have to use a resident deputy system for quicker response. Even California’s San Bernardino County uses resident deputies in Trona and Barton Flats.

“I have an under sheriff and four deputies who work out of Powell and another deputy in the Crandall area,” explained Sheriff Brewer from his Cody, Wyoming, headquarters of his allocation of the meager 14 patrol deputy force available to him.

Sheriff Montano has placed two deputies at the north end of Santa Fe County, near Espanola, New Mexico, as well as a sergeant and two deputies at the Edgwood south end, to speed up calls response.

Agents with the U.S. Border Patrol and even Canadian officers pitch in to help the Burke County Sheriff’s Office keep the peace in the North Dakota/Canadian border county.

Reserve Deputy Assistance

One route to alleviate the problem is the extensive use of volunteer and part-time reserve type officers. Reserve deputies are often called at home and are able to respond quicker to a nearby scene than an on-duty deputy poised more often than not at the other end of the county.

“We have several reserves in the south county Edgewood area, near Albuquerque, and can call them out to handle a call quickly instead of sending a busy deputy out of Santa Fe with an hour’s drive,” said Sheriff Montano.

Shelby County has 12 reservists to augment the beleaguered patrol force, many of whom are fully certified as Alabama state law enforcement officers. Using deputies who reside in different corners of the county enables the sheriff to extend his reach and profile into the various communities.

San Bernardino has long been a proponent of reserve utilization and has one of the largest volunteer programs in the U.S. Over 1,000 state-certified reserve officers donate a minimum of 20 hours per month. The 23 units of the Search and Rescue/Mounted Posses, serving in such challenging locales as the Colorado River, donated 139,526 hours in 1995.

Take-Home Cars and Improved Equipment

The implementation of take-home car programs has gone a long way towards lowering costs, increasing law enforcement visibility, and expediting response. From the four-man Burke County Sheriff’s Office to the much larger Santa Fe County, most sheriffs have moved to the use of individually assigned marked units.

Shelby County made the move in 1991 and Santa Fe has embraced the concept since 1986. In fact, both counties aggressively issue take-home cars to qualified reserve deputies which enhance the agency’s response time capabilities.

“With take-home cars, we get more coverage, a quicker response time, more recovery value for resale, better maintenance, and less downtime,” opined Captain Curry.

While cars are the only source of transportation for most hard pressed sheriffs, San Bernardino boasts seven operational helicopters staffed by full-time deputies and augmented by reservists on the weekends. Based out of the Rialto Municipal Airport heliport, a helicopter from the fleet is also sent to the high desert area of Apple Valley, Victorville, and Hisparia from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm.

Captain Curry said that boat house property theft and residential burglary problems identified at Lay Lake, at the south end of Shelby County, have been alleviated with the purchase of a $15,000, 19-foot boat used from April through October.

Radio systems were another problem cited by sheriffs who contend with terrain not encountered in city settings. Communications, vital for officer safety, is being recognized as just that- vital – and more elected officials are answering the call for a solution than ever before.

Sheriff Montano said the Santa Fe County Commission has come through with around $1 million for a new 800 mhz trunk radio system which would effectively eliminate the many dead spots his mostly mountainous jurisdiction creates.

In its aim for officer safety, Shelby County is in the process of updating their computer aided dispatch to get quicker warrant and records checks and call location history. Such a system is vital when backup takes so long to arrive. Coupled with the improved setup will eventually be a global positioning satellite system to locate patrol cars.


Of course, central to the sheriff’s duties are funding the patrol apparatus. Money, as exemplified by Wyoming’s Sheriff Brewer, is tight. He was, however, able to get some additional monies for federal and city prisoners housed in his jail facility.

Some counties are on an upswing. Sheriff Montano recently garnered $3 million from the county commission for a new headquarters on Highway 14 south of the City of Santa Fe, and Shelby County reversed its trend of being seriously under funded for years. The county was tagged by The Wall Street Journal as being the fifth fastest growing county in the United States.

Sheriff Marquardt’s location on the border is a two edged sword as demands increase, but so too does the opportunity for asset sharing forfeiture funds. While not as much as perhaps sheriffs in the southern border states reap, his share of the Canadian action makes a difference in the fiscal picture.

The federal COPS FAST grants have made an impact for some sheriff’s offices. Sheriff Sasser reported that his four-man crew responsible for 429 square miles in the 3,000 population Echols County includes one recent addition made possible by the Community Oriented Policing Services grant program. Needless to say, the sheriff is a big advocate of his colleagues seeking federal grant money to add personnel.

Sheriff Montano, and the others interviewed for this article, emphasized the need for sheriffs to trust the people that elected them. The public’s involvement in their law enforcement is ultimately the pivotal point, rather then more equipment or deputies. Such a mutually embarked on agenda makes all the difference in the challenging mandate to police rural territory which sheriffs across the U.S. contend with on a daily basis.

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