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for people who care about the West

No backup on the Northern border

A rural county is saddled with international responsibility.

 

It's 10 degrees below zero in windblown Toole County, Mont. Thirty-four miles south of the longest non-militarized border in the world, the county seat of Shelby serves as the last stop for all international traffic heading for the Sweetgrass Port of Entry and the snowy wheatland flats of southern Alberta. The Toole County Public Safety Center, an unobtrusive concrete building, huddles at the bottom of a treeless hill across the railroad tracks from the center of town. Inside, two-term Sheriff Donna Matoon sits in a small, uninsulated corner office across from Undersheriff Mike Lamey. On the wall between them hangs a wooden sign that wryly proclaims: "Good Morning, Let The Stress Begin!"

With a jurisdiction of almost 2,000 square miles and only 11 deputies to cover it, Matoon says the stress is real: "It's hard when you're trying to put the budget together and fuel's over $4 a gallon in the summer." Toole County's economy increasingly relies on the energy industry and its rough-and-tumble army of temporary workers. At the same time, Matoon's force must deal with 50 miles of the U.S.-Canada border, which is twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border but handled by just a tenth of the federal personnel. Every day across the West, rural county sheriffs face tough challenges. But it gets even more difficult when you have to cope with an international border and a large transient population.

The 130 agents employed by the Havre Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which includes Toole County, are concentrated largely at Sweetgrass. That leaves some wide-open sections of border relatively unguarded between Sweetgrass and ports in neighboring counties. Such gaps cause endless anxiety for federal agents and rural deputies charged with apprehending drug smugglers, port runners and border jumpers, not to mention potential terrorists. It doesn't help that Matoon's office is perennially understaffed, overworked and underpaid.

Sheriff Matoon, a tough 26-year law enforcement veteran with a high school education, has held just about every job in the department and is the only female law enforcement officer in the history of the county. She sits easily in her chair, clad in blue jeans and a black fleece jacket emblazoned with the sheriff's emblem. Her closely cropped black hair is all business, but she retains a distinctly Western grace that matches her slow, considered tone of voice. Outside of Shelby, Toole County has less than one person per square mile, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of law enforcement challenges.

Take the local energy boom, for example. Each summer, approximately 150 to 200 seasonal construction workers show up to build the 210-megawatt, 140-turbine Glacier Wind Farm -- Montana's largest -- in Toole County. Many of these workers congregate in downtown Shelby seven nights a week, May through September. "And what happens when you get young, outdoorsy men who go toss a few back?" Lamey asks rhetorically. In this case, it's a 42 percent increase in simple assaults, or those in which the victim suffers minor injuries, from from the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2008. "It got to the point where every Friday and Saturday night we would have at least one assault down at the bars," he says. "The other nights were just the pushing and shoving nights," Matoon adds with a smile. "It was literally seven days a week for four months."

The energy workers aren't the only transient population. Some 450,000 trucks and 1.3 million travelers crisscross Toole County annually on the interstate, the Amtrak railway, and U.S. Highway 2, most of them headed to and from Canada. With such a high volume of traffic, alcohol violations are a tiresome routine here. The expansive Town Pump service station and restaurant in Shelby is the first or last stop in the U.S. for many travelers, which makes it a center of activity for the local deputies as well. They respond to calls on everything from fuel thefts to domestic disputes between truckers and their girlfriends. Within the last couple of years, they've intervened twice to help suicidal drivers barricaded in the cabins of their semi-trailers. Just recently, they found 14 grams of crack cocaine in the men's restroom.

Matoon is constantly struggling to hire and keep the officers she needs. A post-9/11 infusion of federal dollars has produced a brand-new 100,000-square-foot customs and Border Patrol facility in Sweetgrass with many staffing needs. Because the Border Patrol has trouble retaining employees in the sub-zero winters of northern Montana, the agency has begun hiring locals at a starting salary of between $36,000 and $46,000, rising to $70,000 in year three. Toole County deputies, in comparison, start at around $31,000. Consequently, many of Matoon's more experienced staffers have been lured away by federal agencies, and the number of applicants for open positions at the department has declined from 20 to 30 in years past, to 10 or fewer in recent years. "I don't blame them," says Matoon. "When you've got a wife and two or three kids, you can't support that family on 14 bucks an hour."

The local staff shortage has been particularly troublesome over the past decade. The increased federal presence at the Northern border means that agents are apprehending more people than ever before. Last year, the number of arrests there rose by more than 1,500. That may sound like a good thing, but responsibility for those arrested at Sweetgrass rests with Matoon's department, even if the suspects are wanted in other states. And because Sweetgrass is the busiest port between Blaine, Wash., and Pembina, N.D., Toole County gets more than its fair share of criminals, from felony drug smugglers to folks from, "say, Paducah, Ky.," Lamey offers. "They load up the family and they decide to go to Alaska for greener pastures, and"–– he claps his hands loudly –– "they hit an international border. You know, they show up with $37 in their wallet and five kids in a vehicle, and maybe there's something in their past, some arrest for some offense." That's when a local deputy has to step in.

This is one of Sheriff Matoon's pet peeves. As the moment, the county has four such people in lockup. "Because we're at this border, the people of Toole County are now feeding and clothing and keeping them warm at night," she explains. Last year, her department detained people wanted in other states for a combined total of 245 days at an average of $50 per day, plus $9,000 in medical and dental costs. But because the department can only afford to staff the detention center for three and a half days a week, deputies are often called in to deal with inmates when they should be out on patrol. This limits the department's ability to respond to emergencies, as when two dead bodies were discovered in Shelby last winter.

A note found with a suicide victim on Jan. 4, 2008, contained a murder confession, which led deputies to a coulee east of town. There, a second body was found, severely beaten and frozen solid inside the cab of an abandoned pickup truck. The investigation stretched Matoon's deputies to the breaking point. "We had guys putting in 20 hours a day who had to drop their lives, and that was steady for two weeks," she recalls.

Cases that require all deputies on duty are more common here than in many rural counties because of the secure checkpoint at Sweetgrass. Six years ago, for example, federal agents uncovered one of the largest misdemeanor cruelty-to-animals case in Montana history. A semi truck arrived in Sweetgrass on Halloween night carrying 181 emaciated collie dogs and 11 cats, all covered in urine and feces. The drivers were allegedly traveling from Alaska to Arizona to relocate their animal-breeding business. The sheriff's department made the arrest and then began nurturing the animals back to health. When the national media got hold of the story, donations poured in, and by June every animal had been assigned to a kennel or adopted.

But not every story has such a happy ending. The heightened border security and the dramatic increase in federal personnel in Toole County have strained relationships and hindered communication between federal and local agencies, according to Matoon. For example, new confidentiality rules require federal agencies to use secure digital radio frequencies that are inaccessible to county deputies. Therefore, any communication between agencies in the field requires a telephone call relay to the Border Patrol headquarters in Havre from the county dispatch center in Shelby. This slow process aggravates Matoon, but even more troubling is the fact that some of the newer federal agents appear not to trust local law enforcement. "We've had deputies pull up next to a Border Patrol outfit, and they won't even roll down the window," says Matoon. "Sometimes I only have one guy out, and I need to know that somebody is going to back up my people."

During a Senate field hearing on border security in June, Matoon aired her concerns to a national audience. In a widely circulated press release, she called for a return to a time when county and federal agencies "watched each other's backs like we were part of the same agency." Since that hearing, at least one federal program has been given additional funding to address the problem. Operation Stonegarden, which pays local law enforcement agencies overtime to conduct additional border patrols, is popular with both Matoon's deputies and the federal agents. "You have 50 miles of border front, but now you've got another trained professional out there," Lamey says.

On Jan. 13, it was announced that Operation Stonegarden will receive $60 million in funding for the new year, including $180,000 for overtime wages in Toole County -- the equivalent of adding three more staffers to Matoon's tight payroll. That should provide at least some temporary relief for the deputies saddled with this large county, a long section of border and a growing list of responsibilities. 

"Under law enforcement, the Shelby phone book should read, ‘When you don't know who to call, call us,' " Lamey jokes. "We do it all."