Sheriff: Crimes strapping her office

Published 10:16 am Friday, December 14, 2012

The county board received more bad news about Mower County’s crime rate Thursday, but a bit more help is on the way.

Just before the county board approved a 2013 budget that includes $80,000 for a new investigator in the Mower County Sheriff’s office, Sheriff Terese Amazi and County Attorney Kristen Nelsen spoke to the board about how detectives are struggling to keep up with the high number of crimes.

“We’re just getting clobbered with serious crimes,” the sheriff said.

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With high crime rates in the county and a recent string of violent crimes, including multiple shootings, Amazi said her staff is stretched thin.

“It’s hard running the ship when you don’t have enough people to do it,’” Amazi said.

Currently, the sheriff’s office has two detectives investigating crimes, and they often devote their efforts to the most serious matters.

Though Nelsen commended the two detectives for their hard work, she described the current state as a “triage-based system.”

“Right now it’s bad, and they need the help, and I’m asking you to give them the help,” Nelsen told the board.

Even a single crime can absorb a substantial amount of time. On a recent serious assault case, Nelsen said both detectives investigated, and both spent time testifying in court.

The county’s finance committee turned down a host of budget requests from county departments, but one of the few it approved was to add an investigator. Originally, the commissioners expected the majority of the investigator’s work to focus on welfare fraud because the efforts could recoup much of the position’s cost. But that now appears unlikely: Many welfare fraud cases aren’t being investigated at Human Services, as the sheriff doesn’t have the bodies to address them.

“They’re handling as many cases as they can administratively,” Amazi said, adding that’s the one way they can “put a Band-Aid on it.”

But Nelsen told the board another investigator is needed to work on other, more serious crimes, like shootings, stabbings and assaults. Welfare crimes take a back seat, according to Nelsen, because “it doesn’t have a bleeding body attached to it.”

“We do what we have to for safety, and when we can we deal with the rest,” Nelsen said.

Concerns aren’t limited to violent crimes. Internet sex crimes also take extensive amounts of time to investigate because cases come with a great deal of material.

“They don’t just have a computer, they have Zip drives, they have three or four computers,” Amazi said.

To the sheriff, these crimes are still serious.

“We can’t not investigate these crimes,” Amazi said. “These are kids, these are predators.”

Another growing problem is fraud involving elderly relatives, as more people are stealing money from aging family members.

“Our elderly population is being taken advantage of,” Nelsen said,

The county is currently involved in five cases, according to Nelsen, who added one is even being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office. With the elderly population, it appears to be an issue that isn’t going to go away.

“It’s increasing, and it’s not going to go down,” Nelsen said.

These aren’t small cases, as Nelsen said these people are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from relatives.

The one positive is that the sheriff’s office, the Austin Police Department, the county attorney’s office and other agencies are all on the same page.

“This county works together,” Nelsen said.

Amazi agreed, and she noted that more city police officers helped sort evidence and cover other duties the night of the recent shooting at Lansing Corners, even though it was in the county’s jurisdiction.

“We all get along together,” Amazi said, noting that’s not always the case at other counties.

The high workload for investigators isn’t expected to wane, as Mower ranks third in the state for crime per capita.

“That’s incredible when you think about it,” Amazi said.

Commissioners noted Amazi’s comments mirror recent statements by Correctional Services Director Steve King, who said high crime rates are straining all law enforcement budgets in the county.

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said many people don’t know how big the crime problem is locally.

Board members added it’s becoming difficult to fund and address all these things.

“How many thumbs do we have to have to plug all these stupid holes that keep coming up,” Gabrielson said.