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Ag-related crimes focus of task force

February 16, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Batteries stolen from tractors.

Irrigation pipes swiped.

Hay bales taken from farmers' property.

Each of those crimes has elements in common. For one, they are agriculture-related; second, they are all prevalent crimes in rural Imperial Valley; third, they tend to go unreported.

Imperial County Sheriff's Office officials hope to change that through a campaign aimed at making those in ag-related industries aware the law is ready to help.

To that end, the Sheriff's Office two years ago joined the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, a nonprofit group made up law enforcement, farm-related government agencies and ag-related industries from 27 counties.

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This week, for the first time, the task force had its quarterly meeting in the Imperial Valley — a step local authorities said brings to light a new focus on ag crime in the area.

Gabe Vela, a sheriff's investigator assigned to the task force, said, "It's important for the community to realize there is a task force in California and we are members of the task force."

Vela said the group comes together on a quarterly basis to share information on ag crimes to both respond to such crimes and take a proactive step toward preventing ag crime.

Those in the task force also spearhead efforts in rural areas aimed at teaching farmers to report all ag crimes no matter how minor.

"We need to be made aware of those crimes," Vela said, adding that is the only way authorities can attempt to prevent such crimes.

Frances Devins, a sergeant with the Fresno County Sheriff's Department and president of the task force, said the goal is to promote awareness in areas such as the Imperial Valley.

"We try to educate them that increased awareness and documentation of crimes will help law enforcement," Devins said.

She added Southern California has not been as focused on ag crimes as areas in Northern California. She said in recent years that has started to change.

Local authorities credit Sheriff Harold Carter for having his department join the task force.

One of the officials who attended the task force meeting in El Centro this week was Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Tom Connors.

Connors said the DA's Office in Ventura County has taken a zero-tolerance stance against ag crimes. He said that means he will pursue any ag-crime case no matter how minor the theft may seem.

Connors added he thinks the message is getting out to the community that if people violate the law by committing an ag crime they will be prosecuted.

Vela said Imperial County along with other counties in Southern California are working toward obtaining grant funding to help in attacking ag crimes.

The counties then would form a regional effort to prevent ag crimes.

Vela said regardless of the grant, the county has a focus on preventing ag crimes and it is important for communities to be aware of that.

He said if someone wishes to report such crime, they can contact the North County sheriff's substation at 344-2615 or call a tip line at 339-6333. The call can be anonymous.

"The public is the eyes and ears of law enforcement," Vela said.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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