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Column: Successful California rural crime prevention program facing uncertainty

A comment made by the sheriff of Kern County several years ago at a California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors (CPCSD) annual September field day came to mind recently as California legislators debated the merits of funding the Central Valley Rural Crime Prevention Program.

The sheriff was grateful for CPCSD recognizing the department’s rural/ag crime fighter efforts. However, he also acknowledged that crimes against agriculture were not always a departmental priority. The Central Valley Rural Crime Prevention Program changed that. He was embarrassed to admit that a beer grab from a rural convenience market would get the store owner two patrol cars, red lights and sirens blaring, to the crime scene trying to snag the culprit with two six packs under his arms.

Sadly, if on the same day a farmer called in the theft of thousands of dollars worth of aluminum irrigation pipe, the dispatcher likely would have told the grower to mail in a report or a deputy would be out in a few days to pick it up.

Thanks partly to the state-funded rural crime prevention program, the sheriff said his department revisited its priorities and crimes against agriculture were now given the attention they deserved.

For far too long, California farmers and ranchers have accepted thievery as part of doing business in a rural environment. More often than not, farmers and ranchers would not even report losses.

Tulare County district attorney Phil Cline (fortunately for him no relations to this editor) decided about a decade ago that was not right. He formed the Tulare County Agricultural Crimes Investigations Unit to develop problem solving and crime control techniques and to encourage timely reporting of crimes. Tulare County was successful in it efforts, leading to the California legislature funding for the crime prevention program not only in Tulare County, but throughout the valley in Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

The program has been funded at $3.5 million annually, but the law that created it soon sunsets. Fresno County State Sen. Chuck Poochigian is working to continue the program at current funding levels, but the effort is faltering for lack of legislative and gubernatorial support.

It is preposterous to think $3.5 million to bolster the crime fighting effort in five counties that contribute more than $20 billion annually to the state’s economy is struggling to win approval. Talk about a need for California legislative re-prioritization. To ad insult to injury, the governor has given token recognition to the program by cutting funding by $1.9 million less than current levels.

Since 2002, the program has reported losses of farm equipment, chemicals, livestock and other agriculturally related items of more than $27 million. It has recovered $9.5 million of that, a recovery rate of 35 percent, more than double the state’s average for general property crimes. A lot of this recovery can be traced to the equipment identification system the program supports.

More importantly, the program has created a greater law enforcement presence around farms and ranches, putting thieves on notice that stealing from agriculture will no longer be a piece of cake.

District attorney Cline said in a recent Sacramento Union article that this program "has facilitated a major shift in awareness of rural crime."

It is a long overdue awareness. It would be a travesty to see it disappear for mere pennies in a $109 billion state budget.

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