No backup on the Northern border

A rural county is saddled with international responsibility.

  • Sheriff Donna Matoon, who, with 11 deputies, covers the nearly 2,000 square miles of Toole County, Montana.

    Larry Beckner
  • The new port of entry facility at Sweetgrass, built and staffed with post-9/11 federal dollars.

    Larry Beckner

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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."

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