COLFAX, La. (AP) — Grant Parish is 643 square miles of water, forest and generally rural terrain. It is home to three villages — Creola, Dry Prong and Georgetown — and three towns — parish seat Colfax, Montgomery and Pollock. Other communities, such as Bagdad, Prospect, Hargis and Bob, fill out the total population of about 22,000.
People know each other in Grant Parish.
Rural law enforcement requires a different approach, and Sheriff Steven McCain brought with him a new philosophy when he took the position 13 months ago.
"I think I'm here for one reason," he said. "To provide a service — and that's more than writing $200 speeding tickets and putting everybody in jail."
McCain recently attended a conference in Annapolis, Md., specifically for rural law enforcement agents.
"There were people from California, Utah, Florida, and everywhere in between," McCain said. "I was surprised by how close everybody's issues are."
Technology is one.
The Grant Parish Sheriff's Office until recently used the same computer system it acquired in 1982.
"Most of the issues were about the computer systems," McCain said. "The problem with most rural law enforcement agencies is money, or the lack thereof."
There are 90 employees, but 27 of them work exclusively at the jail in Colfax, where they are in charge of 106 inmates. There are 15 reserve deputies, 14 patrol deputies, three detectives and one K-9 officer. Everyone else works in administration or dispatch, either for the Sheriff's Office or the 911 call center the Sheriff's Office houses.
The 911 call center is small, but it works with the help of police departments in other towns and the help of citizens, McCain said.
"That is certainly different than a metropolitan area," he said.
Drugs are a problem in Grant Parish, specifically crystal meth and prescription pills.
"About 72 percent of all our problems are directly or indirectly related to drugs," McCain said.
That means drug possession, sales and manufacturing, as well as theft, violence and destruction of property.
The dense woods of Kisatchie provide a relatively safe haven for meth addicts to operate labs.
Loewer Powersports donated two utility vehicles to the sheriff, which has helped deputies patrol the trails through Kisatchie and at special events such as MudFest and the Louisiana Pecan Festival, both in Colfax.
"Most of the roads (in Kisatchie) aren't wide enough to put a truck down," Deputy Ryan James said. "We use the UTVs in response to missing hunters and on rescue operations."
The top problems in the national forest are illegal hunters and meth cookers.
"I could probably drive you around today and a find a (meth lab) dump site," James said. "Being that it's rural, and nobody is driving down the roads at night, it's easy to (operate a meth lab)."
McCain, who has school-aged children at home, said he wants to target drug dealers and get them off the streets.
"We're not responding to homicides on a weekly basis, but we've certainly got our problems," McCain said. "We've put over 25 dealers in jail in Grant Parish in the last nine months. That's a big deal."
In the last six months the Grant Parish Sheriff's Office has investigated crimes including crack cocaine and crystal meth possession, simple arson, marijuana cultivation and one homicide. Many of the calls, however, are not about crime.
"Animal control takes up 30 or 40 percent of our time," James said. "We've had three dog calls and a horse call already today. We have loose horses, horses in a small pen, dogs and cats at large. I got drug down the highway by a mule one time."
McCain said the office fields about four animal-related calls a day.
The department now has an animal-control unit made up of patrol deputies. Before it was formed, deputies spent most of their day handling animal-control issues.
"The deputy would have to answer these animal calls and spend 30 minutes or an hour on each one, when we could have been using that time to find drug dealers or investigate a theft."
The size of Grant Parish towns and communities is a double-edged sword. Everyone knows everyone, and no one knows that better than dive team captain Jody Bullock.
When a deputy is sent to investigate, the likelihood is high that he or she will know the person in question. It's also likely the person in question is a family member.
Due to the large number of waterways in Grant Parish, the department formed a dive team four years ago. Before that, the department had to rely on other agencies when a drowning occurred.
Bullock was among the first on the dive team.
"There was a need for it, and I took to it," he said.
One of the first recoveries Bullock assisted with occurred after a boat wreck in the Red River.
"They were drinking and high-speed driving," Bullock said. "It was January, and it was sleeting. They died. It was my niece."
Bullock said more often than not, a dive team is reacting to a tragedy.
"We want to make a rescue, but most of the time we're making a recovery," he said. "You're going to know the people nine times out of 10. My niece is a prime example."
Bullock said he loves his job, though, and that the tight community and small department are what make his job satisfying.
"Because of being a small, rural agency, we have to do a lot of things, and we're cross-trained in a lot of things."
Deputies have taken fuel to a stranded boat on Iatt Lake in the middle of the night. They've pulled in broken-down boats, found lost hunters, distributed toys at Christmas and hosted fish fries.
"That's the reason I didn't push harder to go work for the State Police," James said. "I wanted to do more than write tickets and work wrecks."
Bullock said working for the Grant Parish Sheriff's Office was supposed to be a "stopover." That was 25 years ago.
"We do it all," he said. "I just responded to a woman who didn't know how to install a car seat. Then, we might work a burglary or we might work a homicide. We never know. I wouldn't leave here for anything."
Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, http://www.thetowntalk.com