By Julie Phillips Randles
The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s ag crimes unit will be adding two additional deputies in coming months, thanks to funding from a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant from U.S. Department of Justice.
"Last year, the sheriff’s office qualified for a COPS grant that allowed us to hire 14 additional officers for community oriented policing. As we move forward, I’ll be using some of that staff to cover ag crimes," said San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore. "The idea is that we would have a four-person unit again."
Moore expects the first additional rural crime deputy to be in place in 30 to 45 days. A second officer would likely be added two to three months later. Moore would like to be able to add a supervisor to that unit – for a total of five employees – in the new budget year.
The Agricultural Crimes Task Force currently includes two sheriff’s deputies. In recent years, budget cuts reduced what was once a four-person crime unit to a single deputy at one point, before reaching the current two-officer staffing level.
"I realize that in San Joaquin County, agribusiness is our No.1 business. I’ve found farmers to be a very self-sufficient group, so they don’t usually holler unless they just can’t do anything else," Moore said. "I want to be as responsive as I can to them."
San Joaquin Farm Bureau President Bruce Fry noted that Moore has also been working with the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors to address the need for additional ag crime coverage. “The more manpower, the better," said Fry, vice president of operations for Mohr-Fry Ranch. "The sheriff has done a great job. When a farmer calls with an issue, they are out there quickly."
Ag crime real
The need for additional ag crime coverage is real. Farmers and rural residents have been hit hard in recent years by thefts of copper wire, metal, solar panels, tools and equipment and fuel. More than 380 cases of rural theft were recorded in 2011, according to information from the San Joaquin County Rural Crime Task Force. Those crimes included thefts of $915,000 worth of equipment, tractors, commodities, metals, livestock, chemicals and fuel.
In September 2012, rural crime reports indicate one copper wire theft, three metal thefts, five thefts of tools or equipment, a fuel theft and two miscellaneous thefts, Moore said. Six arrests have been made related to these crimes.
“When you talk about ag crime, it’s usually large dollars. When equipment is stolen, it’s big money," Moore said.
He expects rising fuel costs will drive up thefts of diesel and gas. “Fuel thefts went through the roof list time gas prices went up," Moore said.
Aaron Lange, vineyard manager for LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards knows a thing or two about being hit by rural thieves. He said various LangeTwins locations have had diesel fuel stolen from stationary irrigation engines, batteries stolen from tractors and semi-trucks, and solar panels stolen on four occasions. One of Lange’s neighbors had brass irrigation valves stolen.
“It’s a huge problem. You can never have enough officers or enough time to track it all down," Lange said. “When an officer is available, they have been very responsive to us. They patrol a huge area and there are just not enough boots on the ground and there’s not enough time to get ahead of the criminals.
“You have to make your pump or copper wire less attractive than the other guy’s, and that’s the sad story here," Lange described. “You have to make your operation as unattractive as possible."
Important to report
Farmers who are victims of rural crimes should take the time to report their losses so that enforcement can be focused on those areas and to ensure that crime trends and locations can be tracked by the ag crimes unit, noted Kory Campbell, SJFB program director. Sightings of suspicious vehicles should also be reported. The SJFB office provides reporting booklets from the sheriff’s office that include postcards ready to be filled out and mailed, Campbell said.
Farmers and rural residents can help protect their property by taking the following steps recommended by the sheriff’s office:
- Store equipment inside a barn or shed; make sure doors and windows are secure.
- Avoid parking vehicles or machinery near roads.
- Remove rotors, distributor caps and batteries from motorized equipment that is left outside.
- Store tools or other small equipment in locked toolboxes, rather than in the bed of pickup trucks.
- Keeps storage areas organized so that equipment can be easily tracked or identified as missing.
- Consider installing surveillance equipment to deter crime and to assist law enforcement if items are stolen.