By Michael Howell
At a budget meeting with the County Commissioners last week, Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman made an impassioned plea for more deputies in the Sheriff’s Office. He asked to add nine more deputies to his workforce over the next five years.
Hoffman said that Ravalli County Deputies are dealing with significantly increased levels of criminal activity in all categories and he brought detailed documentation to back up that claim.
“This is a trend that will not change, and as a county we have done little to try and keep pace,” said Hoffman. “We continue to operate on borrowed time, counting on luck. We are long past the point where it is reasonable to ask the Sheriff’s Office staff to do more with less. They’ve been doing that for years, and doing so becomes more dangerous each passing day.”
Hoffman asked the commissioners to study the numbers related to the increases in crime, especially violent crime and the increased caseload that goes with it and work with him and his staff to try and find some workable solutions.
“Today, it should not be lost on you that we are dealing with life and death here. You can no longer pass off my warnings as abstract concepts, or potential worse-case scenarios given for dramatic effect,” Hoffman told the Commissioners. He said that no other county employees face the kind of dangers that his staff faces on a regular basis.
Statistics show that in the first quarter of this year his office has already dealt with two homicides or attempted homicides. That equals the total for all of 2013. In the first quarter of this year they have already dealt with 31 rape and sex crimes, while the total for the previous year was 59, which means they have dealt with over half the number of last year’s total in only one quarter. Whether its burglaries, assaults, thefts or assaults on police officers, the numbers from the first quarter of this year indicate an increase in these crimes that will certainly surpass, if not double or triple, the numbers for the previous year. The same holds true for all the other workload indicators such as calls for services, arrest-warrants, traffic offenses, alarm responses, juvenile arrests and all other categories.
Hoffman noted that he had been making this request for more deputies for the last decade and gotten only one new deputy over all that time. His total request, he said, is for 10 new deputies over the next five years, but because he received one in the previous decade, he could make do with only nine new deputies now. He said if no one was sick or on leave, it would allow him to put two more deputies on every shift. That would allow him to keep three or even four deputies on the road all the time.
Longstanding requests for equipment were also renewed. He said the request for laptop computers would help maximize the time deputies can stay in the field by reducing the need to go back to headquarters to complete reports. He said replacement of unserviceable equipment and maintenance of aging equipment was needed in the Detention Center, including replacement of out-of-date “shank vests” used for protection by officers in the center.
Hoffman urged the commissioners to pay attention to the various statistics he was submitting which reflect an overall increase in activity over the past year and to the nature of the crimes. He warned that the 911 system is in jeopardy.
“Suffice to say,” he said, “that the 911 system is outdated and no longer supported.” He said the current system won’t work, even on updated computers, until the software can be updated.
“You need to know that when this system fails, 911 will be out of business,” said Hoffman. He said these future expenditures are not optional, they are mandatory.
Hoffman had high praise for his staff and the Reserve Officers, Search and Rescue and the Detention Center.
“They have risen to every challenge, and performed at the highest level, during some of the most adverse moments the Sheriff’s Office has ever faced,” said Hoffman. “The first four months of 2014 tested us in ways we could not have anticipated, and I could not be more proud of their work.”
He said that the county was faced with increasing numbers of life threatening situations faced by his officers on a daily basis. He said he could read trends and had been doing so for a long time.
“In short, this is not just a job to me,” said Hoffman. “We are steeped in very real, very serious social problems right here, in our own back yard. That is my focus, and it leaves no time for such things as Agenda 21, battles with the Forest Service, or the latest first-world drama taking place within the local Republican Central Committee. I don’t care about politics, and I don’t care who sits on this board, as long as they are willing to work with me on the real-time problems we face in this valley.”
Hoffman also said that after being elected he worked for about nine years without any undue interference until things changed about three years ago, but he called the last three years “nearly intolerable.”
“Members of this board have created policy upon policy which has done nothing but impede my ability to direct operations of the Sheriff’s Office,” said Hoffman. “You have created these policies in a vacuum, without ever speaking to the people who actually provide the fundamental, tangible services our taxpayers pay for, and who are daily impacted by these policies.”
“It is my firm belief that the citizens of Ravalli County elected me to run the Sheriff’s Office, not this board,” said Hoffman. He accused the commission of hampering the effectiveness of his office with needless red tape.
“The members of this board who have created and pushed these policies, and added these extraordinary layers of government, have publicly talked about reducing the size of government but have done nothing but create a ponderous monster which they cannot effectively keep up with. Commissioners, it is not your job to micro-manage my office, and while I believe our constituents agree with me, I think it is a matter worthy of good public policy debate. Please count on the fact that this is a matter we will continue to talk about, beyond budget hearings,” concluded Hoffman.
Commission Chair Greg Chilcott said on Monday, “We take public safety very seriously and do our best to meet the needs of the Sheriff’s Office every year. He was just looking into past budgets for the SO and said that in FY 2003 the Sheriff’s budget was $3.5 million. In FY 2010 it was $4.6 million. In FY 2013 it was $4.8 million. His latest proposal is for about $5.4 million.
“I think these numbers demonstrate the commitment of this board to public safety. And I think it’s safe to say as a board we listened carefully in the past and did our best to fund the Sheriff’s Office,” said Chilcott.