A Multi-State Task Force is Tackling Ag Crime in the Delta

By Andrew Amelinckx, Modern Farmer

When the price of metal—especially copper—goes up, thieves come out of the woodwork and wreak havoc in pursuit of easy cash. Farmers are especially vulnerable since things like irrigation equipment and grain bins represent a goldmine of copper wire, and the rural nature of the business—less supervision—make farms an enticing target. If thieves aren't tearing the equipment apart for the metal inside, they make off with other items, from ATVs to tractors.

These types of crimes hit farmers hard in the Mississippi River Delta region, which encompasses parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. This is because of the large swaths of unattended acreage in the non-growing season from December through February and a “large unique infrastructure of irrigation systems, equipment storage sheds and barns, and seed and grain storage facilities and equipment,” that are “lucrative targets for metal thieves,” according to Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

“These combined factors make the Mississippi River Delta Region a high-risk area for metal theft,” says Hosemann in an email to Modern Farmer.

Gibb Steele, a farmer from Washington County, Mississippi, told the Delta Democrat Times in May that $10,000 to $20,000 worth of metal is stolen from his operation each year. Steele said he doubted there was an irrigated farm in the county that hadn’t been hit by thieves. According to Hosemann, in 2014, 33 percent of farm crimes involved the theft of agriculture equipment.

In order to help combat these crimes, Hosemann in April launched the Mississippi Delta Agricultural Theft Task Force, a unique partnership of law enforcement personnel, farm organizations, scrap dealers, and others from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Tennessee, the latest state to join, came on board in December.

The task force is headed up by David Penson, an investigator for the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, and includes 68 law enforcement agencies and 14 recycling yards. The Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office acts as the central point from which to share real-time leads and information to law enforcement investigators through an “early alert system.”

Say a piece of farm machinery is reported stolen in Tennessee, local law enforcement will email the task force about the crime. The Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office then reviews the information and sends all the pertinent details out to the region’s metal dealers and law enforcement agencies to be on the look out for the stolen items.

That’s exactly how it went down in May when several flatbed trailers containing farm equipment were stolen in Madison Parish, Louisiana—they ended up being recovered by police in Hinds County, Mississippi, thanks to the task force’s alert system, according to Hosemann.

The task force also uses LeadsOnline, a technology company that provides police investigators the information scrap yard dealers are required by law to collect when customers sell them metal. The pay service is free to task force law enforcement members to aid in their investigations.

Beyond that, the force has a 20-person steering committee that gets together to discuss proactive solutions to help combat agricultural-related crime in the region, says Hosemann.

“Interstate cooperation is key to the success of agricultural theft detection, deterrence, and successful prosecution for the affected states along the Mississippi River Delta Region,” he says.