SPREAD TOO THIN?

Sher­iff strug­gles to cover 2,400 square miles with small de­part­ment

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom McGhee

Yuma County Sher­iff Chad Day’s small staff strug­gles to cover 2,400 square miles with crimes rang­ing from hog theft to metham­phetamine dis­tri­bu­tion.

wray» Yuma County sher­iff ’s Sgt. James Thom­son was on his way to de­liver an evic­tion no­tice when a long-run­ning fam­ily feud erupted in shoot­ing about 40 miles from where he was driv­ing on a ru­ral farm road.

Thom­son made a dash across the county, the speedome­ter in his pickup spik­ing at more than 110 miles per hour.

By the time he ar­rived, all but one of the six pa­trol mem­bers of the sher­iff’s of­fice were on the scene, where one sus­pect al­legedly fired an AK-47 sev­eral times into the air out­side his cousin’s house.

In­side, two chil­dren hud­dled be­hind mat­tresses their mother had propped against a wall to pro­tect them when two armed men had ar­rived at the house.

Ar­rests were made and deputies found the gun and a mag­a­zine that one of the sus­pects had thrown from the win­dow of a pickup into a ditch along the road.

It was just an­other day for a bud­get­strapped de­part­ment with few of­fi­cers, a vast area to pa­trol, and crim­i­nal acts that run the gamut from hog theft to metham­phetamine dis­tri­bu­tion.

Com­pli­cat­ing the pa­trol of the vast county that ends at the Ne­braska and Kansas state lines is con­fu­sion about Colorado’s mar­i­juana in­dus­try that leads to com­plaints from res­i­dents about le­gal pot grows, and rules that make it dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine whether a grow is state-sanc­tioned or weed des­tined to cross state lines il­le­gally.

“The ma­jor­ity of the time, I only have two pa­trol deputies on duty to cover 2,400 square miles,” Sher­iff Chad Day said, “and many times just one.”

County lead­ers say there is lit­tle chance of beef­ing up the sher­iff’s bud­get in a county that has ex­pe­ri­enced a tum­ble in its rev­enue base due to a de­cline in the oil and gas busi­ness and a plunge in agri­cul­tural com­mod­ity prices.

In ru­ral coun­ties statewide, sher­iff ’s and other elected of­fi­cials will “tell you that com­mis­sion­ers need to ap­pro­pri­ate more money for their de­part­ments,” said Chip Taylor, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Colorado Coun­ties Inc.

Com­mis­sion­ers who hold the purse strings are try­ing to squeeze ev­ery ser­vice they can out of ev­ery dime they get, Taylor said.

On the day that Thom­son re­sponded to the felony men­ac­ing call that ended with two men in cus­tody, one deputy at the scene was work­ing on his day off and an­other was on over­time.

Be­fore the pa­per­work was done, Un­der­sh­er­iff Adam Wills had also come to the scene.

Ev­ery year since he was elected in 2010, Day has asked the Yuma County com­mis­sion­ers to OK hir­ing four more of­fi­cers. They’ve de­clined.

The first-year cost of adding four deputies to the ros­ter would boost the sher­iff ’s $1.8 mil­lion bud­get by $536,000, and then $332,000 in sub­se­quent years.

“That is just what I be­lieve we need to get to a ba­sic level of ef­fi­ciency and pro­vide ba­sic safety for deputies while they’re on duty,” Day said.

A con­trac­tion in the oil and gas in­dus­try

has dragged down the as­sessed value of land in the county — the mea­sure by which prop­erty taxes are set — by 43 per­cent since 2010, Yuma County com­mis­sioner Robin Wi­ley said.

Oil and gas once ac­counted for more than 50 per­cent of as­sessed val­u­a­tion. To­day it ac­counts for 7 per­cent, Wi­ley said.

Agri­cul­tural com­mod­ity prices, a ma­jor driver of the county’s econ­omy, have also plunged. “When your commodities are down, farm­ers are less likely to buy equip­ment or have funds to spend, so it af­fects your econ­omy,” county ad­min­is­tra­tor Kara Hoover said.

Sher­iff’s de­part­ments in sprawl­ing ru­ral coun­ties across Colorado face dif­fi­culty when in­ci­dents oc­cur that re­quire mul­ti­ple of­fi­cers to re­spond, said Chris John­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the County Sher­iffs of Colorado.

“Small agen­cies could use more fund­ing, but if it isn’t there, it isn’t there,” John­son said. “You rely on as­sis­tance from other of­fices and you do the best you can.”

The amount of Day’s bud­get ear­marked for over­time is never suf­fi­cient to pay the num­ber of hours deputies put in, he said. “Last year, for ex­am­ple, our over­time was over­spent by around 300 per­cent.”

There is al­ways a por­tion of each year when at least one po­si­tion is va­cant, he added. “The sav­ings from those va­can­cies have al­ways been nec­es­sary to cover the over­time that is in ex­cess of my OT bud­get.”

Po­ten­tial hires for pa­trol deputy of­ten walk away from a job of­fer when they hear that the start­ing pay is $33,180 per year, Day said.

In Yuma, the county’s largest town, start­ing po­lice of­fi­cers get $44,000 per year, Po­lice Chief Jon Lynch said.

At one time, when the wife of one of Day’s deputies was out of work, the cou­ple and their three chil­dren had to re­ceive food stamps.

Al­most 6,000 of Yuma County’s 10,000 or so res­i­dents live in the towns of Wray and Yuma. The rest are spread across an ex­panse of farm­land.

Pos­ses­sion and sale of metham­phetamine and co­caine, as well as rob­beries and bur­glar­ies, ac­count for most of the felonies com­mit­ted in the county.

“Meth and co­caine is pretty out of con­trol out here,” Thom­son said.

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence calls, among the most dan­ger­ous faced by law en­force­ment, are fre­quently han­dled by one deputy. Na­tion­ally, more than 20 per­cent of the 132 of­fi­cers killed on duty between 2010 to 2014 were re­spond­ing to a do­mes­tic dispute, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Law En­force­ment Of­fi­cers Me­mo­rial Fund.

Thom­son said hun­dreds of swine were stolen from a hog farm over a pe­riod of time last year — a crime that hasn’t been solved. Thieves fre­quently plun­der cop­per and other metal from sprin­kler sys­tems used to ir­ri­gate crops.

The le­gal­iza­tion of pot has stripped pa­trol of­fi­cers of a tac­ti­cal ad­van­tage that fre­quently led to busts for theft or more dan­ger­ous il­le­gal drugs, Un­der­sh­er­iff Wills said.

“We used to be able to search a ve­hi­cle if we smelled mar­i­juana,” he said. “Now we say ‘do you have any­thing il­le­gal?’ They say, ‘No, just mar­i­juana.’ We used to be able to use that to find other things.”

County res­i­dents of­ten com­plain about mar­i­juana grows scat­tered through­out the county, where le­gal­iza­tion is un­pop­u­lar and there are no dis­pen­saries or re­tail shops.

Grows near the Ne­braska state line roused sus­pi­cion that some por­tion of the weed could be shipped to il­le­gal drug deal­ers across the state line through Ne­braska, or Kansas, Wills said.

“But it’s aw­fully hard for us to in­ter­dict these guys with­out sur­veil­lance, and we don’t have the man­power,” he said.

Reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing mar­i­juana — which is not taxed by Yuma County and adds noth­ing to its bot­tom line — make it dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine if many of the grows in the county are le­gal, or if the pot is headed for the gray mar­ket.

The law al­lows res­i­dents 21 and older to grow six plants, with three of those be­ing ma­ture at any given time. But care­givers who grow for med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tients can have as many as 99 plants for each pa­tient who has re­ceived an “ex­tended plant count” from a doc­tor rec­om­mend­ing the ex­tra plants based on med­i­cal cir­cum­stances.

The clos­est dis­pen­sary to Wray, the Yuma County seat, is more than an hour away in Mor­gan County. “There are no com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions al­lowed in Yuma,” Day said.

“Doc­tors say be­cause you are so far away from com­mer­cial fa­cil­i­ties you need to be al­lowed to grow big­ger numbers of plants,” he ex­plained

Day was one of six Colorado sher­iffs who sued Gov. John Hick­en­looper in 2015 claim­ing the state’s pot law forced them to break fed­eral law. The case was con­sol­i­dated with oth­ers and is be­ing con­sid­ered by the 10th U.S.Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals.

Last year, Yuma County deputies re­sponded to a com­plaint about a grow at a mo­bile home and found three res­i­dents with med­i­cal li­censes who had ex­tended plant counts.

One of them was a care­taker for three other pa­tients who also were al­lowed large numbers of plants. They were en­ti­tled to have more than 600 plants on the prop­erty.

“I’m not qual­i­fied to de­ter­mine how much mar­i­juana some­one needs, but the law doesn’t help us out in de­ter­min­ing how much,” Day said.

A few blocks from the sher­iff ’s of­fice in Wray, three green­houses be­long­ing to CW Hemp front the street. The in­dus­trial hemp plants in­side are a type of cannabis low in THC, the chem­i­cal that gives pot smok­ers a high, but high in non-psy­chotropic cannabi­noid cannabid­iol, which is used to treat seizures.

The green­houses have been there since March 2014. “I still get re­ports that there is a bunch of il­le­gal weed be­ing grown,” Day said.

Those com­plain­ing won­der “how can the sher­iff miss it, it’s right be­side the high­way,” Day said.

The county has far more press­ing drug prob­lems than mar­i­juana.

Last Oc­to­ber, while in­ves­ti­gat­ing a shoot­ing, sher­iff ’s deputies found $320,000 worth of metham­phetamine, sev­eral ounces of co­caine, as well as other il­le­gal drugs and firearms in a res­i­dence.

Product from home-brew meth labs that once dot­ted the county has largely dis­ap­peared, re­placed by crys­tal flow­ing across the U.S. bor­der with Mex­ico.

Ru­mors of­ten bub­ble up from the Latino com­mu­nity of drug­car­tel as­so­ciates com­ing to the county to visit fam­ily, or flee the gang­ster en­vi­ron­ment, Day said.

The vis­its send a chill through the Latino com­mu­nity, where car­tels’ rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence is well-known, and some res­i­dents have fam­ily mem­bers or friends in Mex­ico who have been bru­tal­ized by car­tel mem­bers.

Day doubts that the vis­i­tors are com­ing to en­gage in vi­o­lence or pump drugs into the area.

“If they were com­ing here to do those things, we would find ev­i­dence,” he said. “That’s not to say that when they come, they don’t bring a load of dope with them.”

The ma­jor­ity of the time, I only have two pa­trol deputies on duty to cover 2,400 square miles, and many times just one.” Chad Day, Yuma County sher­iff

Main Street in Wray, in Yuma County, is open for busi­ness Feb. 22. The Yuma County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice has been ask­ing for a bud­get in­crease be­cause the un­der­staffed de­part­ment has had trou­ble pa­trolling the vast county. RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Yuma County Sher­iff Chad Day stands on a hill above the town of Wray. The county doesn’t al­low pot dis­pen­saries, but the county is home to hemp farms, and to mar­i­juana care­givers, whose ex­tended plant counts are so large that some think they are il­le­gal grows. RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

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