SHERIDAN — Law enforcement officials say a bill that would provide local departments with more resources to investigate livestock-related crimes is a step toward tackling a larger problem.
The bill, which passed on its third reading in the Senate Thursday, would set up a fund to reimburse Wyoming sheriffs’ departments for training deputies to investigate livestock cases and for expenses incurred while investigating such cases.
Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Director Byron Oedekoven said the bill is intended to assist departments taking on the burden of investigating livestock crimes.
“This is their first attempt to put money in a pot to help offset the cost to the local agencies of doing this work,” Oedekoven said.
In 2017, Wyoming legislators voted to cut funding for three of the four full-time livestock officers working for the Wyoming Livestock Board.
As a result, the responsibility for investigating most livestock crimes fell to local agencies. Many of those agencies, however, did not have the training or resources to effectively take on that responsibility.
That has created difficulties for local agencies dealing with what can be serious crimes.
“It’s no less important — in fact, arguably (the theft of) 10 heifers at $15,000 each is a pretty significant crime compared to a lot of other things,” Oedekoven said.
Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said his office has struggled investigating cases of livestock left in particular because of issues of jurisdiction and lack of training.
“The biggest difficulty we have is, most of these crimes are reported after the fact, of course,” Thompson said. “And then the livestock has been moved out of the county. And our jurisdiction ends at the county line.”
A sheriffs’ department can travel outside of its jurisdiction to interview people for an investigation, but it does not have the authority to make arrests outside of its jurisdiction. Further, cases that require sheriffs’ deputies to travel outside their jurisdiction are a drain on resources — some investigations have required deputies travel to Montana or South Dakota.
Livestock investigations, like most criminal investigations, also require specialized knowledge and skills. Because local agencies became accustomed to referring major livestock crimes to the Wyoming Livestock Board, most sheriffs deputies are not prepared to take on those cases.
“Livestock investigation is a niche skill,” Thompson said. “Not every peace officer has an understanding of brands or ear tags or even coloring of cows or horses; it’s a specific skillset that most people have because they grew up working in that environment.”
Thompson said it would take several weeks of training and several years of experience for a sheriff’s deputy to learn the skills necessary to effectively investigate livestock crimes.
While both Oedekoven and Thompson said the funding the current bill would allocate is a useful short-term fix, ensuring effective livestock investigations will likely require further action.
“It’s my standpoint, and several of the other sheriffs that I’ve talked to, that a concerted effort to have the right personnel in the right position to investigate these is the ultimate goal,” Thompson said. “If that means it’s a task force of counties together, or if it falls under some state entity that has statewide jurisdiction, that would be a step in the right direction.”
While there have been discussions between law enforcement and legislators about creating such a body, there is no legislation pending at this time. Having passed in the Senate, the reimbursement bill will cross over to the House, where it will need to pass on three readings to be ratified.