Combination of strategies fights rural crime


Issue Date: July 24, 2019
By Christine Souza
Colusa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Bradwell,right, shows Grimes farmer Jake Driver a smartphone application meant to help facilitate communication between deputies and residents, and to report anything suspicious happening on the farm.
Photo/Christine Souza
Jake Driver’s family also invested in cameras and hired a security company to monitor the farm.
Photo/Christine Souza
Colusa County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Mike Bradwell places a license plate reader camera at a Colusa County farm for added protection.
Photo/Christine Souza

Drained fuel tanks, missing tractors, damaged irrigation pumps, the disappearance of crops and animals—California farmers and ranchers face those and other costly rural crimes. To battle these ongoing problems, rural law enforcement agencies deploy new technology while emphasizing a tried-and-true crime-stopping method: increased communication and information sharing between deputies and farmers.

"We want farmers to understand that we need that information, so call us," Colusa County Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Bradwell said. "Don't be worried about whether you are bugging us or not, just get that information to us, because we build our cases off of information. If they want to call and text us directly, we push that. Any little thing out of the ordinary is what we want to hear about."

Farmers Gary and Jake Driver of Grimes, father and son, say exchanging information with local law enforcement has always been a priority, especially because their farm has been hit by thieves in the past. Often, they said, battery thefts are a problem; more recently, fuel thefts have risen.

"A lot of our crime issues are people stealing fuel out of the (large) tanks, as well as from fuel wagons or from out in the field," Jake Driver said. "Pretty much anything they can get their hands on, they are going to take."

Identifying fuel theft as the farm's biggest issue, Gary Driver said the farm uses surveillance cameras and has invested in a security company to monitor the farm.

"Our trap wagons have gas motors on them, and they are stealing from those. You may get a gallon or a gallon and a half, but when you have 10 or more parked out there, they get it all," he said.

In the case of trap wagons, trailers or semitrailers used to fuel implements of husbandry, Jake Driver said, "People will steal the whole wagon," adding that the value of the wagon is about $6,000, and the cost to replace 1,000 gallons of fuel would be valued at another $4,000.

Bradwell said thieves have also broken into large, on-farm fuel tanks.

"They break the locks off, open up the valve, and if they can't, they'll cut the hoses. Some of them have 50-gallon drums in the back of their trucks and just start filling them," Bradwell said, adding that for agricultural crimes, "the loss is significantly higher than residential crimes because the equipment value is so much money."

Bradwell said the Colusa County Sheriff's Department relies on a smartphone application for faster communication and reporting of crimes and suspicious activity by residents and farmers. The app, he said, improves communication and helps deputies build bigger cases.

"A lot of farm thefts do not meet felony status, so we have to make bigger cases," he said. "A lot of minor thefts or suspicious circumstances go unreported—and that is the information we need to know, because they commonly lead to the larger-value thefts. The more comfortable a person gets, the more risk they will take in stealing higher-value items."

Robert Spiegel, policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said law enforcement will gain another beneficial tool through Senate Bill 224 by Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, that was signed into law recently by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Noting that CFBF supported the legislation, Spiegel said SB 224 "not only establishes theft of agricultural equipment as a specific crime, it also creates an opportunity for local law enforcement to collect data specifically related to theft of agricultural equipment and provides funding for the state's rural crime prevention programs."

"While this legislation will be a great tool for law enforcement, California's farmers and ranchers must also be willing to report thefts and other, perhaps seemingly insignificant, crimes to the appropriate officials," Spiegel said. "This has the potential to greatly assist rural law enforcement with establishing crime trends and mapping that can be utilized in larger investigations and lead to arrests."

Another promising aid in solving and preventing rural crime is known as SmartWater, new forensic technology to assist law enforcement in recovering stolen property and catching thieves. First used in Tulare County, the product is a liquid that its manufacturer says can be applied to nearly any surface.

Colorless and chemically coded, SmartWater fluoresces under ultraviolet light. Anyone touching an object marked with SmartWater will pick up the chemical code—even after the liquid has dried—and will carry it on their skin and clothing. Under a UV light, the solution glows a bright yellow.

"SmartWater is like DNA," said Madera County Farm Bureau Executive Director Christina Beckstead, who said the county Farm Bureau is among several that offer SmartWater as a member benefit.

Providing an example of a recent fuel theft at a Madera-area farm, Beckstead said the SmartWater technology helped deputies tie thieves to the crime after a traffic stop involving a truck.

"In this case, the gentleman had touched the handle on the fuel tank, so the SmartWater had been transferred from the tank onto his hands," said Beckstead, who noted that the county utilizes both SmartWater and Owner-Applied Numbers to ensure that recovered property can be returned to the rightful owner. "The deputies light one guy up, and he's got the SmartWater all over his hands. The truck is stolen, they are found with other stolen items and possession of drugs, and it all tied back."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.