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‘We’re on our own’: the rural US town where police refuse calls

In Rancho Tehama Reserve, residents are used to getting by without everything they need. The price, or the perk, of living among the oak trees and rolling hills where cattle graze in this rural northern California community is its isolation.

People typically come to the Ranch, as residents call it, looking for space and quiet – they only got proper cellphone and internet service three years ago. The settlement is at the end of a two-lane road that meanders through the hillsides of California’s Sacramento Valley and offers glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of Mounts Lassen and Shasta. The gas station has snacks, propane and phone chargers, and the hardware store carries alfalfa pellets, kerosene and bolts, but most anything else requires at least a 30-minute drive.

Sherri Burns, the owner of the hardware store, said people here knew one another, and were often united by their love for a place viewed by outsiders as the “armpit of Tehama county”.

“I love it. I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” said Burns, who is also the assistant volunteer fire chief. “If you respect people, you get respect back. I’ve never had fear out here – and I’ve gone on calls in the middle of the night by myself.”

But lately the seclusion of this community of 1,750 has presented a dangerous dilemma – residents say when they call 911, they are frequently unable to get any help.

exterior of blue building with police cars
The Tehama county sheriff’s office is located more than 20 miles from Rancho Tehama Reserve. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

Violent crime in Tehama county, which houses Rancho Tehama Reserve, has been on the rise for three years, according to the most recently available data. The region has higher property and violent crime rates than the national average, according to US News and World Report. The Ranch was also the site of a 2017 mass shooting that left five people dead. Yet the area has been grappling with a law enforcement shortage so severe that the sheriff’s office in November suspended its daytime patrols entirely – for months.

The shortage in this conservative region has not been driven by political forces, national efforts to reform law enforcement or the movement of funding to programs that help reduce crime, but rather years-long labor issues. The sheriff’s office in the county, one of the poorest in the state, has pay rates far below nearby agencies and has struggled to recruit and retain its employees.

In places like Rancho Tehama, residents say, the issue is not a lack of police, but neglect. The staffing challenges only exacerbated a longtime problem – residents say that for years, even when the sheriff’s office had more deputies, the county’s remote settlements received little attention. Though the absence of patrol deputies affected the entire 3,000sq mile county, it hit those living in rural areas particularly hard due to their distance from major population centers and the lack of other law enforcement agencies. “People out here are ready to take it into their own hands. They’re tired of not getting any help. It’s kind of a ticking time bomb out here,” said Cheyenne Thornton, an office manager with the local homeowners’ association. “Unless you’re bleeding or dying, you’re probably not going to get a sheriff or anyone to respond.

“You feel like you don’t matter out here – you’re on your own.”

In place of the Tehama county sheriff’s office, the California highway patrol was tasked with responding to “life-threatening emergencies” during the day, according to a press release. But the Ranch’s location nearly 13 miles from a major highway means that getting help has always taken longer than it does in other parts of the county. “We could get robbed and it would probably take 40 minutes or longer for the police to get here,” said Michelle Abrams, the clerk at the local gas station.

The sheriff’s office had long struggled with retention and recruitment due to its low pay rates, the then sheriff said in February 2022. “We are running what I call a ‘supermarket of employees’ for other agencies,” Dave Hencratt told a local newspaper. “When Redding police department says, ‘You know what, chief, we’re down officers’ – ‘Well, go down to Tehama county, go down the officer aisle and pick some,’ and that’s what they do. They’re cherry-picking our people.”

two people on ATV
Bobby and Kristina, residents of Rancho Tehama Reserve. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

The staffing shortage in Tehama county reached “crisis” levels last year, the office has said. The agency reduced its office hours and suspended its morning patrols, and in November cut daytime patrols entirely. The agency, which is required to provide a jail, staff the courts and investigate crimes against children, couldn’t meet those obligations at its existing staffing levels without eliminating daytime patrols, the county’s new sheriff, David Kain, said in an interview with the Guardian.

“We’ve never been in a position where we’ve [had] to suspend dayshift patrol,” he said. “I don’t know that people really recognize how agonizing this is.”

The number of patrol officers in the county declined by more than 20% between 2008 and 2021, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Though the issues in Tehama county are particularly acute, the sheriff’s account matches what researchers are seeing in other parts of the state. Recruitment has become more challenging, said Brandon Martin, an author of the research from the the Public Policy Institute of California.

“It’s been hard to get people into the profession and then, based on city finances and agency finances, it’s hard to keep them in the position versus other agencies that pay more,” Martin said.

But Rancho Tehama has always been more neglected than other areas, residents say. Tehama county, home to 65,000 people, has two small city police forces, but rural areas receive services exclusively from the sheriff’s office or the California highway patrol.

“I moved to this county in 1978, and the first question I asked was, ‘What kind of service do you have in the rural areas?’” the county supervisor, Bill Moule, told CalMatters. “The sheriff was kinda this big guy, been sheriff a long time. He looked at me and said, ‘Son, get yourself a shotgun and a dog.’ It’s no different today than it was in 1978.”

Deputies typically wouldn’t come to the area unless called, said Burns, who has lived in the region for nearly two decades. “It depends on who you are out here as to whether they’re coming or not. Honestly. And that was sad. But I understand with so few officers in this large county, you got to prioritize.”

overhead view of landscape with trees, grass and mountains
A view of the town early this month. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

In Rancho Tehama, some residents weren’t worried when the sheriff’s office announced it would no longer have officers on the street during the day. They value their wide open spaces and privacy, and, living remotely, they’ve gotten used to feeling forgotten by authorities.

“I can protect myself and my family, whether I shoot you in the ass or beat you with a stick,” Chris Foster said with a laugh. “This is the country. People packing guns is normal to me and my nine-year-old son. Because, you know, you have to protect your wellbeing and your property. It’s like anywhere else.”

Residents of Rancho Tehama often make a point of saying the community is no different from anywhere else in the county.

“It gets a bad rep,” said Abrams, the gas station worker. “I think people categorize it as a big tweaker theft town, but there’s really hard-working people out here. I see them every single day and they come in dog tired, completely covered in dirt after working the fields and the ranches.”

‘It’s a different world out here’

Rancho Tehama was thrust into the national spotlight in November 2017, when a resident shot more than a dozen people in town, killing five, including his wife, two neighbors and strangers. A resident and police officers, who responded in minutes, stopped the shooter as he tried to storm the elementary school. Shortly after, he died by suicide in his vehicle.

woman holds photo of couple
Sissy Feitelberg, grandmother of Gage Elliot, an eight-year-old survivor of the Tehama mass shooting in 2017, and mother-in-law of Danny Elliott, who was killed. Photograph: Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

The rampage forced residents to ask a painful question – why hadn’t the sheriff’s department done more to stop the shooter before the violence? In the year leading up to the killing, deputies had been called to his home 21 times. Some survivors sued the county over the incident.

The lilies perched in front of the town’s blue welcome sign in the weeks after the killings are long gone, but the shadow of what happened that day still hangs over the Ranch.

Shortly after Thornton started her new job as the office manager of the homeowners’ association last fall, a man called the office and threatened to torture and kill everyone there.

sign on small pillar says ‘in loving memory of the victims of the tragedy of 11-14-2017
A mass shooting memorial at Rancho Tehama Reserve. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

“We tend to take things like that seriously out here because of the shooting,” said Lacie Bellah, the office’s administrative assistant. “We know better than anyone that hollow threats aren’t always hollow.”

As the pair commiserated about the lack of support, exhaustion crept into Bellah’s voice. She’s lived here most of her life, and has watched it transform into a place where she no longer feels safe sitting outside in the early morning. Frustrations are mounting.

“It can’t turn into the wild west,” Bellah said.

“It could easily turn into that,” Thornton added.

When Thornton called the sheriff’s department about the threat to the office, she recalls a deputy asking her: “Do you feel like they will actually follow through with it?” They wouldn’t come out, they told her.

“We have zero response from any of the law enforcement,” she said. “We recorded [the threat]. That’s all we can do – hope for the best, hope that they don’t actually follow through with their threats. It’s a different world out here.”

Last fall a resident called 911 when, on surveillance cameras, she spotted burglars breaking into her home while she was away. The sheriff’s office said they couldn’t send anyone, Thornton said. The intruders only left after a security guard hired by the office arrived on scene. Late last year, someone threatened to shoot an association worker who was trying to remove abandoned cars – another call that didn’t get a response.

A local business owner who asked to remain anonymous said his office had been broken into four times in recent months and the sheriff’s office didn’t send anyone.

Sheriff Kain did not respond to questions about services in Rancho Tehama specifically. He said that the office had had no other option than to cut its daytime patrols and that the shortage of staff had imperiled its workforce.

“At some point you have to realize you’re potentially putting someone in peril either safety-wise or by way of just overdoing it as far as physical health or mental health,” said Kain. “We were getting to the point where we just don’t have enough staff to staff all these positions and take care of our employees.”

cross, building and sign saying ‘join us! sunday worship 11am’
Rancho Tehama community church. Photograph: Andri Tambunan/The Guardian

This year, he told a local newspaper that he hoped to create a rural area deputy patrol program to serve areas such as Rancho Tehama. “Residents in [these] areas, far from the Interstate 5 corridor, need to have someone they can contact who knows them and the area.”

Tehama county has recently granted pay raises in the sheriff’s office, which Kain said allowed the agency to fill more positions. On 26 February, the office resumed daytime patrols. But staffing remains thin, and for those who live and work in Rancho Tehama, it makes little difference – they expect more of the same.

“We have a lack of support from the county altogether, you know, we can’t even get a sheriff or anyone to come out and speak at our meetings,” Thornton said.

Though she understands why the community is frustrated and skeptical about any improvement, Thornton urges them to keep advocating for the attention and help they deserve.

She said: “We keep trying to encourage [residents] to continue to report, continue to call the sheriff, at least make a report – because eventually something has to be done out here.”

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