Laying down the law

A one-time Baltimore lawman brings big-city policing to a North Dakota prairie town, and not everyone's happy

October 18, 2006|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun Reporter

In the tiny prairie town of Larimore, N.D., the police bust up barroom brawls and reprimand teens drag-racing on their all-terrain vehicles. But until recently, driving faster than the posted speed of 25 mph or parking on the wrong side of the street wouldn't elicit much attention from the town's two-man police force.

After all, the neighbors in Larimore will probably be neighbors for life. They'll run into each other at the high school football game - where almost everyone in town turns out on Friday nights - or at the town's only bank. The police don't want to burn bridges with their neighbors.

But a law enforcement veteran from Baltimore came to town in August and put a big-city, crime-fighting stamp on this farming community of 1,400 near Grand Forks. And residents there are crying foul at what they call aggressive policing at the hands of their new chief, Steven L. Jones, a native of Govans.

Not even the mayor's mother, who's nearly 80, is safe. She was recently slapped with a $60 speeding ticket.

"She was a little disgusted over it," says Larimore Mayor Marvin Denault, who earns $175 a month for running the city and has pledged his support to Jones. "It was the first ticket she ever got in her life. But like she said, `I went and paid the damn thing.' I don't think she's holding any grudge. He's just doing his job."

Broken license plate lights, people walking around town with open containers and unleashed dogs are some of the infractions that have Jones writing citations - about $1,600 worth last month, and much to the ire of many longtime residents.

Jones, 50, was a corporal with the Maryland Natural Resources Police. He also worked as an instructor with the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, as a deputy sheriff at the Cecil County Sheriff's Office and as a detective for the Department of Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

After a brief stint running his own security firm in the city, Jones stumbled upon an online ad for the top law enforcement job in Larimore. He'd never been to North Dakota before, but saw the job as chief as a way to advance his career.

He has already taken to carrying a 3 1/2 -inch-thick binder of city ordinances and the North Dakota Criminal and Traffic Law Manual, which he tries to read four or five pages from everyday.

"Some of the townspeople are upset. They said I studied the law book too much," Jones says unapologetically. "All I can say is any good officer wants to make sure he's current with all the laws he has to enforce." And Jones, who says he stands 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 105 pounds, wears a bulletproof vest - a move that has the residents scratching their heads.

An officer who "doesn't wear his vest is inviting trouble," he says.

Michael Coachman, a city councilman who served on the hiring committee that brought Jones to town, says the fresh blood on the force is just what the town needs. "The good thing is that he's not related to anyone," Coachman says of Jones. "He doesn't know anybody. Everybody's equal across the board. It's kind of a pet peeve. They can't say, `We're buddies, can you let me off?' He's fair and impartial to everyone. And that's why we need him. You need somebody who's gonna say, it doesn't matter if you're the mayor or some ho-hum citizen. You need somebody who can't be bought."

All this back and forth may seem small beans compared with issues that chiefs deal with in big cities, or even in heavily populated suburban counties around Baltimore and Washington, where crime and police misconduct seem routine.

But many residents say this East Coaster just doesn't understand rural culture. And about 200 of them recently packed the high school gym for a public forum to say so. After all, who doesn't know that a license plate light is going to take a beating from the gravel roads in Larimore?

Wheat and bean farmer Joseph G. Hunt Jr., who owns the E-Z Convenience Store and adjacent 12-room Velmar Motel, heads the charge of residents trying to get rid of Jones.

He's filed complaints with the Grand Forks County Sheriff and the state's attorney office, though he admits he's never had an encounter with Jones. And he points to a blemish on the chief's record - a three-day suspension from the Natural Resources Police in the late 1990s, after a boater complained that Jones was aggressive. "I have been disciplined, true," Jones says. "I've made mistakes in my career. That's water under the bridge. I've excelled since then."

Hunt says he's concerned about a drop-off in business because many of his customers say they'd rather stay home than be harassed by Jones.

"I don't think we're bad people here, but he apparently does," Hunt says.

The way Jones tells it, the townspeople's problems with him may come down to a couple of thorny issues: race and religion.

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