Serving and protecting during turbulent times
Sheriff’s Office tackles challenges to keep protecting the most vulnerable
April 30, 2020
How do you protect and serve a community in lockdown? At a time when life has changed for everyone, a shift at Crook County Sheriff’s Office may look different, but the objective remains the same.
Certain crimes have become more common, such as domestic violence, while others such as theft may increase as stress levels rise, says Sheriff Jeff Hodge. But the biggest priority for law enforcement is still to protect the most vulnerable in the community.
“Probably my biggest concern right now is some of the children at home, because the schools are usually a resource for us for abuse and now we don’t have that resource,” he says.
“The longer this goes on, the worse those situations are going to get, and we don’t have the ability to keep a really close eye on some of the kids.”
The school usually provides information that the Sheriff’s Office would make use of to keep an eye on potentially abusive situations. For example, a school would report that a child turned up with bruising.
“We just don’t have that anymore and I’m afraid that, with more stress in households, typically those things get worse. As your economic situation goes down, so do the issues in your house go up,” he says.
Some of the kids in this county depend on their school for both meals and a sense of stability, he says, and while the school district is doing its best to cater to these vital needs, says Hodge, there will always be situations where some assistance is needed. Hodge has offered his services to the schools to have deputies check on kids if there is suspicion of issues such as malnutrition and abusive households.
“A lot of kids might not be in a severe abusive situation and can handle it on a normal basis, but when something like this comes along and things get locked down, and then the parents aren’t working, those lines of communication are cut,” he says.
Hodge is also concerned about the elderly population of the county, especially those who do not have a support system in this area.
“You wonder how many of the elderly population are being checked on. In this area, I think we’re pretty good, but there are still people out there,” he says. “We run across them occasionally, old people who live by themselves in the middle of the country and do not get checked on.”
If you are experiencing issues or suspect a friend, family member or neighbor may be in peril, please call the Sheriff’s Office for help. Deputies are more than willing to perform welfare checks, Hodge says.
“Anybody who is having issues with food, electricity, shelter, an abusive relationship, please call us,” he says. “Our deputies are still out there.”
Meanwhile, in this unprecedented situation, law enforcement has seen an increase in certain crimes. For the most part, what appears to link these incidents is frayed tempers.
“We have seen an uptick in pursuits – and they are being particularly aggressive,” says Hodge, referring to two recent high-speed chases within the county. “The first one was trying to ram the deputies and highway patrol, the second was trying to run head on into the deputies. I don’t know if it’s just out of frustration and people’s tempers are getting shorter, or if they’re just not acting as rationally.”
Violence within the home, too, appears to be on the increase, which could be attributed to the stress associated with the pandemic.
“We’re starting to have an uptick in domestics and more arguments,” he says. “We are seeing more stuff like that and we are concerned about suicide rates.”
This can only get worse as the lockdown stretches on, the sheriff believes.
“If the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t start getting a little bigger instead of smaller, we’re going to definitely start seeing an uptick in that more,” he says.
One major stressor is, of course, the economic situation – and that could start to have an impact on law enforcement, too.
“There is more to be concerned about than just COVID-19. When you look at the law enforcement side of it, as people get more desperate and obviously they have to feed their families, they need money, and people will do desperate things to survive,” he says. “We don’t want to get to that point.”
One area that has changed very little for law enforcement during the pandemic is in the number of crimes involving drugs and contraband being transported through the county.
“They are criminals for a reason and people will take advantage of all situations – and people will resort to alcohol and drugs though they are the last thing you should resort to,” he says.
Another concern for the Sheriff’s Office has been the possibility of people coming from other states to shelter in Wyoming, where our official counts are still low. Deputies are monitoring the presence of RVs deep in U.S. Forest Service land, for instance.
“It’s my job to protect the citizens of Crook County and I’m not going to tolerate people coming here for stupid reasons and endangering everybody in the community, like those coming here and leading us on a high speed chase,” he says. “There are no get-out-of-jail-free cards if you’re putting people in danger.”
Speaking of which, Hodge would like to stress that, “Everybody has constitutional rights, but one person’s constitutional rights does not mean they get to stomp all over everybody else’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” he says. “I’m starting to get calls referencing constitutional rights.”
Those callers ask if deputies will be arresting people for, say, going to church.
“The answer is no, I will not be violating anybody’s rights. What’s going on in some of the surrounding states is absolutely crazy,” he says, referring to instances outside Wyoming where he feels law enforcement has over-reached.
“I don’t think you’re going to see the sheriffs of Wyoming stand for that and I think Governor Gordon realizes that…and I don’t think the people of Wyoming are going to stand for that either.”
However, Hodge cautions again that one person’s constitutional rights do not trump another’s.
“If you are sick, you may have the right to go out in public, but should you do that, I think you are violating everybody else’s rights,” he says. “There’s a balancing act, but people need to be responsible. You need to have respect for other people.”
Even within the Sheriff’s Office building, things look different right now. The office was ahead of the curve when it came to screening for the coronavirus, says the sheriff, along with testing where needed.
“If somebody is arrested now they are quarantined for 14 days before they are put into the general population,” says Hodge. “We have encouraged the local departments to not arrest if they can cite, though obviously if it’s a violent felony, domestic violence or a DUI, they are still all being arrested.”
Meanwhile, command staff members have been placed on a split shift so that not everyone is in the office at the same time and officers are taking precautions such as changing shoes when they leave so as not to potentially carry the virus home and wearing PPE equipment to death calls. Particular attention has also been paid to ensuring quarantine protocols for dispatch personnel.
These measures aim to prevent the worst case scenario for county law enforcement, Hodge says. “If we lose our dispatch center, we’re in trouble, and if we get COVID-19 in our jail, we’re in trouble.”
Meanwhile, anticipating that county finances will take a hit due to the strain on Wyoming’s economy, Hodge says he is already preparing for shortfalls in the county budget.
As Wyoming moves into a different stage of coping with the pandemic and the restrictions begin to loosen, Sheriff Hodge asks that the community continues to act responsibly.
“We’re pretty fortunate here, people are typically good neighbors and most people are responsible. It’s just the few,” he says.
“People have been great in Crook County for the most part. We’ve had very few issues and people have been pretty patient. I understand what they’re going through and hopefully we can start opening things back up – and when we do start opening things back up, let’s be respectful of everybody.”
Sheriff Hodge invites anyone with questions or concerns to contact the Sheriff’s Office.