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September 4, 2018

McClatchy feature on policing in rural California echoes my theorizing of law's relation to rurality

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Trinity County, California, Courthouse, July 2018

Photos by Lisa R. Pruitt 

The headline is "Calling 911 in rural California?  Danger might be close, but the law can be hours away," and four Sacramento Bee journalists contributed to this major feature, which has been in the works since December, 2017.

 

I was gratified to see the story--which documents the reality (and consequences) of lack of effective law enforcement and high per capita violent crime rates in California's nonmetro counties.  To be clear, the news is bad, but I was gratified in that the story confirms work I have been doing for more than a decade now (some of it documented in this blog since September, 2007, 11 years ago this month).  That work has been theorizing the difference that rurality makes to law's operation and people's attitudes about law.  In other words, what is the legal relevance of rurality and, thus, why should legal scholars attend to rural difference?  why should "rural" be a category of analysis in the implicitly urbanormative field of law?

Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, Yreka, California, July 2018

photos by Lisa R. Pruitt (c) 2018

 

Just a few years ago, I published a chapter on this issue in a volume of legal geography essays.  Mine was titled, "The Rural Lawscape: Space Tames Law Tames Space."  My argument was that rural spatiality is in tension with law.  That is, the distance between homes and the distances that legal actors must traverse in order to exert law's authority--to make law meaningful--practically disables law.  Technology can help (that is, time can trump space), but it's costly and cannot always be a substitute for the presence of human law enforcement.  Further, rural residents' sense that they must be self sufficient is reinforced by this lived reality.  As academics express it, society, spatiality and law and all mutually constituting or co-constitutive.  If people know that legal actors such as law enforcement are effectively not present, then they know they must take care of themselves.  In a sense, the lack of efficacy of law promotes a sort of frontier justice or informal order.   

 

Now, the empirical work of these Bee journalists confirms my theorizing with hard data about the number of sheriffs deputies per 100 square miles in California counties--including those all across the state, not just in the northern third on which Sac Bee usually focuses.  These journalists also look at  violent crime rates, confirming that  many of the highest crime counties are "rural" according to the metric used by the reporters:  Alpine (with a population of just 1,175, the state's least populous county, in the eastern Sierra) and Lassen (in the northern Sierra) lead the pack.  Third is metropolitan San Joaquin County, home to Stockton.  

Plumas (again, northern Sierra) is next, followed by the state's most urban county, San Francisco, then nonmetro InyoShastaLake and Modoc.  Of course with populations as low as those of many of these nonmetro counties, the violent crime count doesn't have to be very high to rise to the top of the per capita heap.  Indeed, it would be interesting to see data on deputy sheriff per 1000 residents vs deputy sheriff per 100 square miles.  How different would the map and rankings look then?  And which is the more salient metric, given the significance that material distance plays in rural lives? 

 

The Bee story begins with information about a 2011 double murder in the Trinity County community of Kettenpom, nearer to Mendocino County than to Weaverville, the Trinity County seat.  In that case, Trinity County law enforcement asked the neighbors of a couple who called 911 to check in on that couple because sheriffs deputies coming from Weaverville were several hours away.  The incident ended badly, with the responding neighbors severely wounded and the assailant, who had killed the couple who initially called 911 by the time the responding neighbors arrived, also dead after a car chase.  The responding neighbors, Norma and Jim Gund, are suing the Trinity County Sheriff (in a case now going to the Supreme Court of California), and in the related story by journalist Ryan Sabalow observe, "Over here, we have to take care of ourselves."  Any trust they had in the sheriff's office has disappeared, the story reports.  (The separate story about this law suit is well worth a read, especially for legal eagles who will be interested in the arguments of the respective parties, including the assertion that the Gunds were effectively "posse comitatus," which happens to be the name of a far-right survivalist group).

Another quote from this McClatchy feature similarly speaks powerfully to informal order.  The man quoted is one whom Modoc County Sheriff's deputies knew was growing marijuana illegally.  Yet when they stopped him in a remote locale, they made an effort to calm his anger rather than confront him with the marijuana infraction.  The story reports that the deputies planned to return later with reinforcements rather than risk the consequences of his ire when they stopped him in a vulnerable location.  The man who was stopped, identified as Roberts, told the reporter who was on a "ride along" with the deputies:

We have freedom with responsibility out here.  We can do a lot of stuff. These guys [sheriffs deputies] referee.  

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Wow, law enforcement as referees for what residents want to do?  This is sounding like the wild west, indeed.  (As it happens, I am in the midst of reading about the wild west in Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose, which features vignettes where vigilante justice takes over, much to the dismay of eastern transplants to places like Leadville, Colorado in the 19th century).  

Bieber, California (Lassen County), July, 2018 

Lack of tax revenue undermines rural counties' 

ability to finance public services

 

These somewhat harrowing vignettes from Trinity and Modoc County aside, what I consider to be the story's lede contrasts rural with urban:

As urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno grapple with discussions about use of force and the over-policing of minority communities, the state’s rural counties face a growing and no-less-serious law enforcement crisis: a severe shortage of staff that puts the public — and deputies — in danger. 

A McClatchy investigation found that large stretches of rural California — where county sheriffs are the predominant law enforcement agencies and towns often run only a few blocks — do not have enough sworn deputies to provide adequate public safety for the communities they serve.

Elsewhere the story provides this illustration, again contrasting rural and urban:

Del Norte Courthouse, Crescent City, July 2018  

While the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department employs nearly 160 deputies for every 100 square miles it covers, the tiny sheriff’s departments in Madera, Mariposa and Mendocino counties employ about four deputies for the same amount of turf. In Del Norte and Alpine, the counties make do with two deputies per 100 square miles.

Those figures include non-patrol personnel and those who work in county jails. 

Also, consider the role that the phenomena of distance and personnel shortage played in this tragic story out of Tehama County last fall.  Perhaps these Rancho Tehama events gave the Bee journalists the idea for this story.

Tehama County Sheriff's Office, Red Bluff, California, July 2018

The McClatchy story features a color-coded map that shows the number of law enforcement officers per 100 square miles (again, what would it look like if deputies per 1000 residents?).  It reminds me of maps I have helped to produce here showing lawyers per capita in California counties.  Guess what? As with law enforcement officials, nonmetro counties have shortages of lawyers.

 

Another interesting theme/revelation in the story is that no deputy actively patrols in some counties, e.g., Mendocino, for some parts of the night, though deputies are on call from their homes.  When I wrote something similar on Legal Ruralism about my home town in Arkansas a few years ago (see herehere and here), students in my Law and Rural Livelihoods class were shocked to imagine a place with no law enforcement on duty 24-7, yet it is happening here in California, too.

 

A third interesting theme:  population churn in rural areas, partly driven by low cost of living, has had an impact on how rural communities are policed:

Tex Dowdy, the sheriff-elect of Modoc County, said an influx of transient residents drawn to the low cost of living has made identifying suspects harder for Modoc’s deputies. 

The story quotes Dowdy: 

It isn’t the same place where we used to live.  You used to recognize the bad guy walking around the street because he was in the paper every week.

Alturas, California (Modoc County) July 2018

Note the lack of anonymity theme, about which I have written a great deal in the last decade, including here and here.  The sheriff basically confirmed what I have argued:  in rural counties, the "usual suspects" is as powerful a type of profiling as racial profiling, if not more so (and, of course, the two can overlap).

 

A fourth interesting theme--one also  articulated in my academic writing--is that some people seek our rurality for the privacy and effective seclusion from law that it provides.  (Think Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in rural Montana).  These folks are unlikely to call on law enforcement even when they need it.  Regarding this proposition, the story quotes Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in relation to this phenomenon:

Things go on in the hills all around us that go unreported.  We know that. Daily. It happens. It’s something that we’ve just gotten used to. There are shootings that occur in the middle of the night. ... We know that there’s kidnappings, we know there are people getting brutalized out in the hills, we know there are people getting robbed.

Honsal's quote reminded me of this feature by Reveal last fall, which I blogged about here, regarding wage theft and sexual abuse of "trimmigrants" in places like Humboldt and Trinity County.  Of course, immigration status can also make people reluctant to report a crime, a particular concern in places like the San Joaquin Valley.  The Chief Justice of California has, for that reason, criticized ICE for any presence in California courthouses.

 

A fifth theme relates to budgets, cuts to which have undermined a prior practice of deputizing people who lived in the remote reaches of a given county:

Until recent years, many rural departments had regional substations and hired “resident deputies” who lived in the remote areas they served. Those resident deputies knew their territories and most of the locals by name, making it harder for crime to go unnoticed, said multiple sheriffs. Resident deputies also allowed for quicker response times. 

Those in need “just come and knock on your door,” said Modoc’s Poindexter. “You just grab your gun belt and go out the door and try to fix it.”

July 2018, Bieber, California (far northern Lassen County), a sheriff station

at the local school, which is closer to Alturas, in Modoc County, than to Susanville,

the Lassen County seat.

Indeed, in my recent drive up California 299 from Burney (Shasta County) to Alturas (Modoc County), I saw a sign indicating such a remote outpost of the Lassen County Sheriff's office in Bieber, which is near the Modoc County line and also not far from Shasta County.   Yet it is technically in Lassen County, and how interesting that the Lassen Sheriff's substation should be at the school, of all places. (More photos from that journey are here and here with more to come in future posts on access to justice in rural California).  A few years ago, I also photographed a Siskiyou County Sheriff's substation in Dunsmuir.  Though it is at the southern edge of the county, it is hardly remote given its locale on I-5.

 

Siskiyou County Sheriff's

Substation, Dunsmuir July 2016

Another aspect of the economic situation is the inability of counties to tax public lands, both federal and state.  The story explains:  

The state compensates counties for protected lands, too, but that funding has been controversial and even less predictable. Since the 2015-2016 budget cycle, the state has given rural counties $644,000 for payments in total each year to be divided among them, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose coastal district spans seven counties from Marin to the Oregon border.

I have written previously here and here of the constraints that lack of tax revenue on federal lands place on local governments in rural areas, especially in the West, which has a much greater percentage of public lands than the rest of the country.  The impact of shrinking federal dollars on law enforcement in Southern Oregon has attracted media attention in recent years.  As for that state contribution, less than $700K/year spread among seven counties is pretty pitiful,  even in the context of a paltry rural budget. 

 

Sierra County Courthouse,

Downieville, California, July 2017

A sixth theme of the story is that the state practice of re-alignment (re: prisons and local jails) has not served nonmetro counties well.  The Bee story includes a few interesting quotes to illustrate the conundrum re-alignment has created for county law enforcement. 

 

A seventh theme is the lack of mental health support.

Rural counties have 0.9 psychiatrists for every 10,000 residents, about half the statewide average, according to California Medical Board data. Mariposa has been experimenting with “tele-doc” video technology to connect jail inmates with mental-health professionals in other counties.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Of course, telemedicine is being used to provide mental health and other services in rural counties generally, and not only to incarcerated populations.

 

An eighth theme regards reliance on other law enforcement agencies, including not just California Highway Patrol, but also both federal and state game and fish officers.  The photos show a sign at the California Highway Patrol office in Weaverville (Trinity County), which sits next to the DMV office.  I assume that the sign encouraging reports of vehicle theft responds to the reality that rural residents report crimes at lower rates than their urban counterparts, even when the perpetrator is a stranger.  The other photo I took in Weverville this summer is of a USDA vehicle, reprsenting the sort of law enforcement proxy that game and fish commissioners sometimes represent in rural areas. 

USDA Forest Service vehicle, Weaverville, California, July 2018 

Back to the budget/economics note, I'll close with this stunning data point:  rookie deputies in Modoc County earn $13/hour!  I assume baristas in Los Angeles are paid better than that, especially if you take into account tips.

 

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.