The Agriculture Unit: Protecting a billion dollar industry


Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd values Polk County’s agricultural community, and believes serving their needs and providing protection and education is a high priority for his Office.  Judd knows unique operations are necessary to protect the community in which businesses and individual landowners can be found all over, in every far-reaching corner of the county.  Unlike the local bank however, their assets cannot be locked up in a safe at night.  “You can’t lock up an orange grove,” Judd says.  “They are very vulnerable out there.”

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Agriculture and related businesses in Polk account for more than $1 billion in economic impact, and includes nearly half of its landmass.  The Sheriff’s Office cannot realistically or visually watch over them 24/7.  Nevertheless, Judd and his 14-member Agricultural Crimes Unit invest a considerable amount of time, equipment, relationship building, and education to keep grove owners, ranchers and other agricultural businesses and landowners well protected.  “Our goal with the agricultural community is customer service, customer service, customer service,” Judd asserts.  “And part of the reason for that is this: Can you imagine Wal-Mart leaving the front doors open and going home and leaving all of their merchandise wide open?  Well, obviously not, but that’s exactly what the farmers and ranchers do their entire lives – everything is left in the wide open for anyone to steal or vandalize.”

Despite this seemingly insurmountable task, Sgt. Howard W. Martin concurs that the unit’s uniformed, sworn officers are trained and available to serve the community in many areas, with specialized equipment, including boats, aviation, all terrain vehicles (ATVs), four-wheel drive trucks, cattle trailers, and special surveillance equipment.  “It’s never a dull moment out here,” Martin confesses.  “It’s always busy, busy.”

Yet, while they are dedicated to agricultural crime, they certainly do not have to handle the large spans of property protection alone.  They are supported by the entire operation of the Sheriff’s office, and its approximately 700 sworn officers.  Judd explains, “That is a layer on top of our normal patrol and our normal investigative divisions.”  He continues, “These 14 guys and gal – we have a female officer out there, too – get to know these people and build relationships with them.  They have meetings with them.  And, we give farmers and ranchers our cell phone numbers, so they don’t have to go through the main switchboard.”

Martin elaborates that a big part of the job for the unit is getting to know the people they serve, whom he calls “customers.”  There are a lot of “old school” business owners in the county who remember the days when nobody had to worry about locking up equipment or being robbed.  People had much more honor in the past, and some of the old-timers have not adjusted their thinking.  The Sheriff’s Office tries to bridge that knowledge gap, while taking care not to be condescending.  “One thing I was told when I came out here was to understand that all they have is their word, their integrity,” Martin recalls.  “Time is money to them.  Their time is very valuable, so we work hard to be very respectful of them.  But at the same time, we try to help them, and educate them.”

To help keep the lines of communication open and well-oiled, the Sheriff’s Office has a “reverse 9-1-1” system that allows the department to navigate a phone bank and alert the community if there is a problem in their area.  Judd clarifies that this enables one message to be broadcast to multiple phone lines.

With all of the resources devoted to protecting the farmers and their land, the men and women in uniform are prepared to act.  Agriculture unit officers work on cases ranging from stolen copper wire to equipment theft, cattle theft, squabbles between neighbors, missing persons, disaster relief efforts, illegal dog and chicken fighting, and malicious vandalism.  In conjunction with animal control, the unit often addresses animal cruelty or neglect issues.  If officers go out to check on a starved horse, for instance, they handle any domestic animal issues they might find as well.  When livestock is loose and assistance is needed, the unit often works with the rest of the Sheriff’s Office to round up or locate animals, with the help of helicopters, ATVs or trucks.

Recently, officers kept watch over a certain problem area and were able to prevent a copper wire theft in progress at a cement company.  Copper theft has been a problem, Martin discloses.  While the copper itself might not have a high value, the cost of replacing the equipment it is stolen from can be quite high and disrupt business.

Targeted areas of focus for the unit range from minor disturbances, to working to deter more violent crimes.  The Sheriff firmly believes that education is part of the package.  An Agriculture Watch program was created to cater to the agriculture industry and help with law enforcement.  Deputies can quickly access landowner information with “No Trespassing” signs that are posted on property and provide a code number.  The program, which promotes a “zero tolerance” stance on agriculture crime, has been recognized as a model program by the Florida Sheriff’s Association.  At a cost of $13 per sign, sales benefit the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Explorer Post 900.  Anyone interested in more information about the program may call 1-863-534-7205.

A free firearms education program was set up for the agricultural community in the wake of the tragic death of a 32-year-old citrus grower.  Scott Mitchell, of a prominent Bartow citrus family, was shot while checking harvesting crews in a grove near Alturas on May 16, 1994.  It’s important that people are able to defend themselves when possible, Judd warns.  “I want you to be armed while you’re in these orange groves,” he insists.  “Because you might need that by the time you call for help, if we can find you, and get to you before it’s too late.”  The course covers firearms laws and how people can protect themselves – what is legal and what is not – and also provides a way for individuals to qualify to apply for a concealed weapons permit.  “We want them to be safe,” he says.

Judd affirms that it makes good sense to utilize the manpower.  The Sheriff’s Office cannot possibly arrive quickly enough to provide protection for the community.  “Can you really imagine a better posse than a bunch of farmers and ranchers who already know how to handle a gun?  When I think of farmers and ranchers, I think of real men,” Judd states, emphasizing that they feel a strong sense of propriety.  “It’s theirs and they’re going to take care of it.”  And, he asserts, that the Sheriff’s Office is here to help them.

CREDITS

story by MARY TOOTHMAN

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