Sheriffs duel with new duties

Drugs, funding cuts bring big problems to small towns

June 17, 2007|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,Chicago Tribune

SPENCER, Iowa -- Pigs outnumber people by more than 11-1 in Clay County, but make no mistake: People cause all the trouble here, and trouble is increasingly finding its way to the doorstep of Sheriff Randy Krukow .

It's not that this generally table-flat county in northwestern Iowa is on the road to perdition. Far from it. There hasn't been a murder here in a couple of years, and many folks, out of generational trust and custom, still leave their doors at home unlocked.

But in ways that reflect growing demands on sheriffs around the country to respond to problems they often are not prepared to handle, Krukow, 56, is facing a flood of challenges big and small, all of them time-consuming and many going beyond the immediate realm of crime.

Drug trafficking - most of it methamphetamine - made up nearly half the arrests in Clay County last year. The population in the creaky, 71-year-old jail is changing as the number of inmates with mental health problems is rising sharply, and the deputies are not equipped to deal with the needs of those prisoners.

Since he took office in 2001, overall complaints that he and his deputies respond to from the 17,000 residents in the county are up 55 percent.

"It used to be that neighbors could talk to neighbors and resolve their disputes. Now it's `Call the cops,'" he said. "It's adult day care. Now you're supposed to be everything to everybody."

The job of sheriff is changing, and as Washington has drastically cut multibillion-dollar federal grants that went to counties for drug investigations and other crime prevention programs, sheriffs across the nation are complaining that hometown security has taken a back seat to homeland security.

Ted Kamatchus, the sheriff of Marshall County, Iowa, and president of the National Sheriffs' Association, said sheriffs are "called upon more and more to be the first line of defense against terrorism, violent crime and drugs, and this is happening while we're losing our federal funding."

Kamatchus said targeted federal funding for local law enforcement has been cut by about 75 percent since 2001, to about $550 million. A decade ago, federal payments for state and local law enforcement programs totaled $2.5 billion.

Visually there is little that suggests trouble in Spencer, the county seat and a town of 11,000.

During a recent week, Krukow spent a Sunday and Monday responding to flooding that closed 37 roads in the county. He was prepared for that.

Tuesday, though, produced a 14-year-old boy threatening a teacher with a knife in the nearby town of Everly. On Wednesday, deputies seized a meth lab behind a home on the outskirts of Spencer, where a 3-year-old and an infant lived.

Methamphetamine is the starting point for many problems here. The rate of domestic assaults is not higher, but when drugs are involved, the brutality is greater, a director of a regional domestic violence center said. Burglaries are up because addicts need money to buy drugs, Krukow said.

A potential glimpse into the future that may involve drug and behavioral problems can be seen in a third-floor clinic at Spencer Hospital, where Barbara Wilkerson witnesses the effects of increasing drug abuse. Wilkerson runs a child health clinic and says more than 30 percent of the children she sees suffer from the effects of drug use. The dominant drug detected is methamphetamine.

"Ten years ago I didn't see any of this," said Wilkerson, citing eating disorders and language and behavioral problems that stem from exposure to meth.

On Fridays, Karee Muilenberg visits the Clay County jail to check up on inmates. "What you're seeing more of is people with mental health or drug issues who have burned their bridges with family and friends, and they have no place to go but to jail," said Muilenberg, a case coordinator for Seasons Center for Community Mental Health in Spencer.

Krukow, who is tall and lean, has been in law enforcement for 33 years and grew up in Spencer. He admits to being puzzled by the mounting drug problems and the influx of mental patients.

"I'd like to say it's because we've got $7 an hour jobs here, but that's not it. We've got a lot of well-to-do people in trouble like this, too," Krukow said. "We don't have carjackings, we don't have purse-snatchings, no gangs and no shootings. This is a nice place to live, and the reason people stay here is the quality of life.

"But right now I almost feel like a soldier in Iraq, and I don't know how this war is going to turn out."

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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