Caldwell County, Missouri, Sheriff Mitch Allen was asked to speak in early August at a local event to talk with farmers about rural crime. Theft can come in spurts in rural areas and often leads to the question: Who just got out of prison? People often want to know how to protect their belongings, he said.
“What’s important to people out here? Well, it’s important to keep your stuff safe,” Allen told DTN in an interview. (To see a video from the interview, go here)
Looking back on some theft cases he worked as both a sheriff and former state trooper, Allen offered some advice on what people could have done to better protect themselves from theft, or at least document that it happened.
Power tools are frequently stolen, but utility and all-terrain vehicles have become popular theft items. Big farm machinery isn’t immune from theft, either. Allen’s office recently investigated a case of an old combine stolen to be sold for scrap metal.
Everyone who watches CSI or a dozen other crime shows knows you get a fingerprint and a half hour later it comes back with a suspect. Turns out it is more complicated than that and it takes more time. Like a lot of other rural sheriffs, Allen sends off fingerprints to the state highway patrol lab, which is often swamped. Allen said the Missouri state crime lab has an evidence room about the size of a Walmart.
“So it might take five months before I get a fingerprint back, and then it has to be in the system,” he said. “It may come back not on file, or it may come back to Mitch Allen, or it may come back to the farmer, or his family, or his neighbor who comes help him all of the time. So fingerprints aren’t the magic everyone thinks they are, right?”
Allen said his office collects fingerprints and tries to get them when they can. But fingerprints require smooth surfaces. Fingerprints are often partials or smudges that don’t always lead to an identification.
TIPS TO PROTECT PROPERTY
Allen offered the following tips to help protect a farm or rural home from theft.
1. Photograph or record valuables. The documented serial number is key. Make sure there’s a photo of those numbers. In Missouri, and likely other states as well, sheriff departments need a serial number to enter a stolen item into their system.
“That’s the easiest way to do it. Just use your cellphone, take photographs, take photographs of the serial number, and put them in a folder somewhere or on your phone so that if something happens, you can bring it right up,” Allen said.
He added, “A serial number helps if we find it at a pawn shop. You can positively ID something because it has red paint where you sprayed on it. That doesn’t mean anything, though. If you don’t have a serial number, you’re not going to be able to positively ID it for me in court.”
2. Set up some cameras. Set them up to provide clear sight, including capturing faces.
“A lot of farmers use trail cameras because they may not have electricity at some of their barns,” Allen said. “So we’re seeing more and more of that. Every time we go to one of these theft calls we tell them to set a camera system up. It’s easy. Tell your neighbors to set up a camera system. Amazon sells them pretty cheap and they work real well.”
3. Don’t take the law into your own hands. Let the professionals deal with it.
“Everybody wants to protect their own equipment, their own property. The thing to do is call us. That’s the safest thing to do,” Allen said. “Let us handle it. That’s what we do. We have the equipment and the knowledge. I don’t want to see somebody do something that’s going to get them into trouble because they don’t know the law.
“You can’t shoot somebody for stealing your shovel. You may want to, but you can’t. It’s just materialistic items. Let him take it and take good pictures if you can. Let us handle it, that’s my advice.”
Reported thefts and other property crimes continue to decline nationally, according to FBI crime statistics. About 5 million property crimes were reported in 2020, down from 9.1 million in 2010. Preliminary numbers released by the FBI in June show property crimes declined by 7.9% in 2020, the largest percentage reduction in the past five years, according to USAfacts.org.
Cities with populations under 10,000 saw property crimes drop 14% in 2020. The declines in property crimes were likely aided by pandemic lockdowns and more people working from home.
“You’re never going to stop all of it,” Allen said. “If I want to break into your place, I’m going to break into your place. But I think the key is being able to catch who did it. Depending on what they take, we might be able to get it back, we might not.”
The Fresno County, California, Sheriff’s Office also offers some tips on its website to prevent rural crime: here.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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