Rural cops can't keep up with crime

Shane Heap begins his shift in an 11-year-old, hand-me-down cruiser. Heap’s a deputy in a rural Colorado county sheriff's office, and the only patrolman on duty for the entire county — all 1,846 square miles. That's bigger than Rhode Island.

It has not been a problem in years past, but Elbert County, southeast of Denver, is home to spiraling population growth — a more than 65 percent jump in nine years. It is a suburb in the making.

Sheriff Bill Frangis says he can't keep up with demand and, sure enough, a resident has now sued the department and the county for taking more than an hour to respond to a pit bull attack that killed his wife.

“Distance is a killer out here,” says Frangis.

Deputies here now have little time for speed traps or the routine patrols that discourage crime, and some people intent on breaking the law have figured that out.

“People know that we are not staffed and it's no secret that that they can scam us too,” says Heap. “They can use scanners and pick us up.”

It's not just the number of new residents putting pressure on rural law enforcement, but the kind of crimes they bring with them — crimes not easily answered with just one officer on patrol.

In Kansas last year, Sheriff Matt Samuels, while trying to serve an arrest warrant, was killed when he stumbled onto a methamphetamine lab. The drug has become a chronic problem in rural areas.

While local officers have increased training to deal with meth and the crime that comes with it, some say the focus on homeland security has taken away federal resources that rural areas could once count on.

“At one point in time, if you found a meth lab, you could call the DEA or other specially-trained unit," says Philip Propes with the National Center for Rural Law Enforcement. “Now local law enforcement takes on more and more of the burden.”

To fill the gap, Frangis replaced the jailhouse chef with frozen dinners, but it's still not enough. With few businesses in town and residents rejecting tax hikes, county commissioners say his budget is limited.

“It's a problem of the sheriff,” says Elbert Co. commissioner John Metli. “It's a problem with all our departments. We're a growing county and our needs are growing.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Heap goes solo — against his training.

“The big thing they're always pounding into your head is you never go alone anywhere,” he says.

That is, except in rural America, where small town police are facing more big city troubles.