LOWER ARKANSAS VALLEY – While the Bent County Sheriff’s Office seeks seven people for questioning in connection to a shooting in Las Animas, people who live in the Lower Arkansas Valley are taking note of an apparent increase in “big city” crime as numbers of sworn law enforcement personnel continue to reach alarmingly low levels.
“Sometimes I just have one deputy on. At the most, I try to have a couple deputies on,” said Bent County Sheriff David Encinias, whose 8 total deputies, including himself, are responsible for patrolling every inch of the county’s 1,541 square miles. That includes the City of Las Animas, which, like many others across rural Colorado, no longer has a police department. The Walsenburg Police Department disbanded nearly two years ago, leaving the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office as the law enforcement presence for that city. “We try to do the best we can to do the patrols with the limited staff that I have,” Encinias said.
Nearby Crowley County faces the same dilemma with only ten deputies when fully-staffed, a scenario that is a rare occurrence. “There are so many that come and go that are never here more than a year or two and then they’re gone, on to something else when they find out the difficulties that are involved,” said Crowley County Undersheriff Terry Reeves. There are times when there are no deputies on-duty to patrol the Crowley County’s 800 square miles, including the towns of Ordway, Olney Springs, Crowley, and Sugar City. “The guys all know that they’re subject to call-out any time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Reeves said. “And we live with that reality.”
Reeves is building a home in Ordway just a block away from the Crowley County Courthouse, which houses the Sheriff’s office. Reeves has more than 30 years in law enforcement experience. His boss, Sheriff ‘Smokey’ Kurtz, has spent more than 50 years in law enforcement. Most deputies that come through his department, however, are in their early 20s. “I’ve got one guy that has several years (experience). The rest of them average a few months. Most of them are almost brand, brand new guys, straight out of the academies,” Reeves said.
Recruitment and retention are constant challenges for rural departments. Pay is low, hours are long, and stress is high. In August, News 5 reported that the Fowler Police Department has a staff of just two, who are responsible for 24/7 patrols of the town. The officers, one of whom is the Chief of Police, work four-day shifts, 96 hours consecutively on-duty. They are salaried city employees, so they do not earn overtime or comp time. For the lone patrol officer, whose salary is $32,000, the pay rate over those 96 hours works out to be just a little more than $6 per hour.
“How do you attract somebody to a small town,” asked Bent County resident Anne Boswell, News Director for 25-7 Media based in La Junta, operating four radio stations broadcasting throughout the Lower Arkansas Valley. “It’s hard to go to a bigger city and try to recruit somebody and say, ‘Hey, twenty-something, do you want to come down here where there’s not a lot of nightlife and there’s not a lot of things to do that you might be used to?'”
The limited staffing, high turnover rate, and difficulty recruiting have led to an increase in crimes once thought to be reserved for larger cities. “The drug problem has gotten worse,” Encinias said of Las Animas. “It’s gotten pretty bad here lately.” Encinias says opioids and heroin are on the increase in Bent County. In Crowley County, Reeves says drug use isn’t as much of a problem as drug production. “We have a lot of organized crime moving in, mostly associated with illegal marijuana grows,” Reeves said. “The organized crime that has moved in here, mostly from out of state, some of it from out of the country, is quite shocking to me.”
Both lawmen agree that would-be criminals know know they can easily outnumber law enforcement is slim in rural areas. “They know we’re watching them, and they’re watching us.” Encinias said. “Sometimes they have better equipment than we do. They have radios, they use their cell phones, they have cameras on their houses, so they know we’re coming.”
Recruiting hometown kids to come back and serve their communities has now become the priority for these local agencies. “Maybe come back as a deputy, come back knowing that they can help their town out,” Encinias said. “We’re trying to recruit people who have a vested interest in the community — people who grew up here,” Reeves said.
“If we’re all proactive, I think that maybe some of these staffing issues in these smaller departments, this could be made better if we all kind of work together,” Boswell said. In Sugar City, 81-year-old resident Mark Adams has taken it upon himself to try to help ensure the safety of his community, driving around the town nightly to look for anything unusual. “If something don’t look right, I call the Sheriff’s department,” Adams said. Several generations of his family live in this tiny community, where he handles upkeep of the 117-year-old church. “Crime is almost non-existent,” Adams said of Sugar City.