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County tackles Fort Smith enforcement issues
The most immediate change, said Undersheriff Rondell Davis, is that a reserve deputy who lives about 20 miles north of Fort Smith will now be the first responder if an officer is in needed in Fort Smith. Hardin, where the sheriff's office is located, is about 40 miles north of Fort Smith.

Big Horn County officials are making progress in response to complaints about a lack of law enforcement in Fort Smith, the little town at the southern end of Highway 313.

The most immediate change, said Undersheriff Rondell Davis, is that a reserve deputy who lives about 20 miles north of Fort Smith will now be the first responder if an officer is in needed in Fort Smith. Hardin, where the sheriff's office is located, is about 40 miles north of Fort Smith.

The county is also moving forward on a memorandum of understanding with the National Park Service, which would formalize an arrangement whereby rangers from the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area could perform some law enforcement functions in Fort Smith.

In addition, county officials are awaiting a report from a consultant who has evaluated the county's law enforcement system and will soon be making his recommendations for increasing efficiency and effectiveness. Some of those changes could help provide more service to the people of Fort Smith, Davis said.

All this is in response to a town meeting held in late September, when Fort Smith residents complained of a rash of burglaries and other crimes between the summers of 2007 and 2008, and of the difficulty of getting anyone in law enforcement to do anything about it.

One problem is overlapping jurisdictions. The town is in Bighorn County but also within the boundaries of the Crow Reservation, giving Bureau of Indian Affairs officers and tribal fish and game officials jurisdiction in some cases. Rangers from the national recreation area, which starts just south of town, also respond to some reports of crime.

The meeting drew nearly 20 representatives of the county, the tribe and various federal agencies, and there were many promises to do something for Fort Smith.

Linden Schlenker, chief ranger at the national recreation area, said the memorandum of understanding with the county could be signed as early as January. It would not cross-deputize his rangers, he said, but it would allow them to respond beyond the boundaries of the recreation area in specific instances.

Rangers would be able help out in life-and-death incidents and accidents, crimes involving the protection of life and requests to go to the aid of officers from other jurisdictions. The rangers would also be allowed to take action if they witness a felony or a misdemeanor involving an immediate threat to public safety, like stopping a drunken driver.

"The reality is, we already help on a lot of this," Schlenker said. "This would just formalize it."

What rangers won't do is respond to cold calls - after-the-fact reports of burglaries or other crimes, he said.

Georgette Hogan, Big Horn County attorney, said law enforcement consultant Tad Leach visited the county in October and expects to have his recommendations ready early in December. Hogan said Leach is an undersheriff in Kootenai County, Idaho, who has an academic and professional background in law enforcement management. He also serves in an area with a sizable Native American population, so he is familiar with jurisdictional issues, she said.

Hogan said the county gave Leach "very broad" leeway, asking him to look at all aspects of law enforcement in the county and to recommend cost-effective ways of improving the system.

Depending on what comes out of that report, Davis said, it might be possible to make some changes that will help Fort Smith. Since the town hall meeting, Davis and Big Horn County commissioners have talked about the need to hire three more deputies in order to station resident officers in Fort Smith, Lodge Grass and Decker.

Davis said at the meeting that much depends on what happens during contract talks with the deputies' union next year, because some solutions to the manpower shortage would involve changing the deputies' work schedules.

The good news, Davis said, is that the county recently hired deputies to fill three positions that had been vacant since early in the year. Those hires bring the department up to a full strength of 14 deputies, which should make it somewhat easier to respond to calls in Fort Smith and other areas of the county.

A constant problem, Davis said, is that the county's law enforcement agreement with Hardin, which has no police force, calls for having at least two deputies on duty there all day, every day.

"That kind of puts a constraint on us as far as responding out in the county," he said.

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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