By the numbers: Crime losses hit all-time high
The information presented here is based on data provided by each county sheriff's office and may not be complete. California Farm Bureau Federation does not guarantee its accuracy, nor will it be responsible for any use by third parties.
There have always been cattle rustlers, thieves and other assorted bad apples, but these days crime is taking hold over California farms and ranches like never before.
Today's crooks comb the rural landscape looking for anything of value—farm equipment, tree fruit, livestock, but most of all, copper wire.
A preliminary figure for losses due to rural crime in eight Central Valley counties during 2006 is $13.2 million, according to the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network Project. ACTION, as it is known, uses technology and training to support law enforcement agencies in solving, preventing and prosecuting agricultural crime. There is no government agency that tabulates rural crime numbers on a statewide basis, so that figure is not available.
"It just feels like there is nowhere safe," said Paul Gomes, owner and manager of George Perry & Sons, a grower-shipper in San Joaquin County. "I don't think there is one farmer in the delta or along the rivers that has not been hit already by copper wire thieves. They are just cannibalizing the pumps.
"We have a string of about 23 pumps that have had the copper wire stolen out of them in the last two months," Gomes continued. "We're looking at between $60,000 and $70,000 to rewire and get our pumps back online. There are pumps that I have to put the copper wire back in now that we redid twice last year, so this will be the third time in less than a year. It is unreal."
The total value of goods stolen from rural properties in ACTION's eight counties during 2006 increased by $2.3 million from the previous year's total of $10.9 million. In 2004, the figure was $10.6 million. These figures sum up losses for the following Central Valley counties: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare.
Counties outside of the Central Valley including Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz are in the process of forming their own regional task force to address rural crime. Many of these coastal counties have not yet released crime statistics; however, in 2006, Monterey County reported that its rural crime losses reached close to $1.3 million.
"People are going to vandalize and rob and steal if there is a value to the things that they are stealing," said Kerry Whitson, who chairs the California Farm Bureau Federation Rural Health and Safety Committee. "As those increase—and they are increasing, especially in the area of metal and copper wire—it is going to be more attractive for the bad guys and the losses are just going to increase many times.
"Rural crime prevention seems to be resonating with our members," Whitson said. "It is one of those things that has been getting worse for some time, but it was also one of those things that people tend to back burner, saying, 'I guess this is just the way it is because we have not had the tools to do very much about it.'"
Whitson's county of Tulare, which leads the nation in dairy production and produces citrus, livestock and grapes, was one of the hardest hit of the eight Central Valley counties with a reported rural crime loss of $1.4 million.
"I think in Tulare County we are reporting crimes more and we are catching some of the bad guys. But the crime itself is certainly not limited to Tulare County. We are hearing about it all over the state now," Whitson said.
The ACTION Project has been collecting rural crime figures since it was formed in 2000, but began recording this information in earnest in 2003 as as service to Central Valley counties.
"In terms of prevention, these numbers tell us where the hot spots are because we are starting to see the clustering," said Bill Yoshimoto, ACTION Project director and supervising attorney. "Since we know where this clustering is taking place, we can get information to growers in those areas and say, 'You are sitting in a zone that has been consistently victimized.' The data helps us see who the players are and where the crime rings are operating."
Yoshimoto is often asked if the figures can be attributed to a rise in the number of incidences and value of rural crime or rather a rise in the number of farmers reporting crimes.
"One of the ways we know is the metal theft example," Yoshimoto said. "We know what we were reporting in metal theft say in 2004 and we know what is happening now. There was a 100 percent increase in 2005 over 2004 and what we are reporting this year is a 400 percent rise over 2005. And I can correlate that to the price of copper."
Incidences of metal theft on the farm have been included as part of the miscellaneous category and because it represents such a large portion of rural crimes today, it will likely be separated into its own category, Yoshimoto said. The miscellaneous category in 2006 was valued at $6.2 million and of that figure, most of the thefts were metal thefts.
"There is definitely a major increase in the number of metal thefts. It is a category that has not been reported before and it is being reported now in great volumes," Yoshimoto said. "A couple of years ago when we saw diesel thefts go crazy, it was something that we always knew was happening on some scale, but we realized the explosion of incidents was correlated directly to the high price of diesel. In certain categories, we can say there is an increase in this type of crime, but overall it is hard to say whether it is just more reporting or the overall numbers going up."
During 2006, the value of metals stolen in the eight Central Valley counties reached nearly $5 million. However, the dollar loss to farmers is much higher. Bills have been introduced in the state Legislature to address the issue of metal thefts. Details will be reported in future issues of Ag Alert.
"When a thief strips a few hundred dollars worth of wire from an irrigation pump, the farmer faces not only the cost to replace the wire which can costs in some cases as much as $3,000, but also the loss of production to the farm due to the loss of the pump," said Danielle Rau, CFBF director of rural crime prevention.
Kern County, one of the top agriculture counties in the state along with Fresno and Tulare, had the highest rural crime loss figure of all of the Central Valley counties at $3.9 million.
"It is not all copper wire, but that is a large portion of it. We've seen a strong increase in anything that is recyclable," said Sgt. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff's Office Rural Crime Investigation Unit. "In the north end of our county in one two-week period, there were 21 copper wire thefts so that is pretty substantial."
Aside from an increased number of metal thefts in the county, Reed said, it is difficult to gauge why the number is so high. He said he believes an increased awareness by the farming community about rural crimes is a factor.
"The reason why crime is on the rise by the numbers is because we've done such a good job of educating the farmer to report it to us. In the past, they did not necessarily report crimes because their incidents went unworked because they were so remote," Reed said. "Now they have us and we've established a great network with them. They feel free to contact the detectives working with the rural crime unit directly, so I think that has a lot more to do with it."
Rau said she agrees that farmers are doing a better job reporting crimes and that may be due to an increased awareness of the rural crime problems that they face.
"There is a concerted effort among agriculture to report crimes no matter what the loss is in order to help law enforcement solve crimes," Rau said. "There certainly is increased awareness in rural crime and that is partly driven by media coverage of a couple of high-profile cases and an overall awareness that has spread through the agriculture community."
Local law enforcement officials encourage farmers and ranchers to continue to report any suspicious activity that they notice on or around the farm.
"In Kern County there's only four of us in the rural crime investigation unit and we can't be everywhere, so the farmers and ranches must be our eyes and ears," Reed said.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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