On a Sunday evening, Douglas Police Department Officer Russ Smith patrols the city. He cruises past Safeway, the Holiday Inn, loops around Douglas again, and again and again. You get the sense that he sees every inch of the town every night, knows every bit of Douglas like the back of his hand.
Smith has been a DPD officer for seven years and is exceedingly chill. He’s big, wears glasses and has a strong goatee. The Rockies game is on the radio, and he listens to it when names and license plate numbers aren’t coming out of the scanner. Between 6:30-8:30 p.m., he pulls over a prom-bound high schooler for failure to yield, catches a driver with a blown headlight and checks in on some calls here and there.
Otherwise, the night is quiet.
While the oil and gas boom has caused a host of challenges for a wide range of local services and residents, law enforcement hasn’t yet had too much difficulty keeping up with the dramatic increase in population.
“We’re not overwhelmed yet, I don’t think,” Smith said. “But it may be coming.”
The DPD and Converse County Sheriff’s Office have both had to hire additional staff to handle booms in the past. At this point though, the increase in calls is manageable, and local departments haven’t seen activity at the level of the last boom.
“Our calls for service are not up drastically,” DPD Chief Ron Casalenda said. “But the amount of calls we are doing is increasing.”
DPD Sgt. Casey Coates said that oil field workers aren’t the hooligans they’re often made out to be, and they don’t cause a disproportionate amount of trouble for the police department.
“Most of the people that are here with the boom are here to work,” he said. “They’re in bed by nine.”
For officers like Smith, the most notable impact of the boom is an increase in traffic. The jam-packed truck stops stand out to him, and he noted that there have been more accidents.
“We just see considerably more traffic,” Casalenda said. “We’re seeing more crashes, and we’re seeing the hazards of the traffic increase.”
The pure increase in people means more work for law enforcement, not just on the roads. Converse County Sheriff Clint Becker pointed out that more crashes and DUIs mean his office has to handle more paperwork.
Law enforcement officials are fully aware that today’s slight rise in calls could become a dramatic spike in the near future and strain on police and sheriff’s department services is likely to grow.
DPD Sergeant Casey Coates explained that the boom changes the police department’s call prioritization.
“When you have an increased demand for police services, you see some aspects of community policing decrease,” he said. “Some of the peripheral things that we do, that we might not have a real purpose in doing, go away.”
During booms, law enforcement has to be a bit more selective in where it lends a hand. For instance, when the city isn’t too busy, the DPD frequently performs civil standbys. As activity picks up, reports on small parking lot fender benders could be postponed to the following day. Pulling officers off the street for fire and ambulance assists will become more difficult.
With the staggering amount of activity in northern Converse County, outside of the Douglas city limits, the Sheriff’s Office could be seeing a greater impact from the boom. Becker said that his officers are working long days to keep up with all the traffic, accidents and calls.
“We’re running into a lot more crashes,” he said. “We have so much more traffic.”
The oil field and its support services are leading to more crashes, especially on the notorious WYO 59. More frequent crashes creates a jump in paperwork, and that can be the start of a vicious cycle. More paperwork leads to more time in the office, which makes it harder to be on the road to work on the more prevalent accidents.
Both departments noted they’ve seen an increase in overtime, which can be a plus for staff in the short run. Long term though, overtime can take a toll.
“I think we’re going to have to increase (our staffing),” Becker said. “You have to worry about burnout. Overtime’s only good for so long. People get tired of working . . . The officers need a break. They can’t go seven days a week.”
NOTHING NEW TO SEE
Coates remembers how the last boom impacted the DPD.
“It was busy,” he said. “It was call, to call, to call for officers. A lot of times you were on calls where you should have had two officers for safety reasons, but we didn’t have the luxury of that. We were somewhat short-staffed.”
In Wyoming, municipalities and law enforcement agencies have to hire on new staff to keep up with booms, without hiring too many so they have to lay people off during busts. A department’s workload can change drastically depending on whether the local economy is at a peak or in a valley.
Coates, who spent years in the oil and gas industry in places like Pinedale and Williston, North Dakota, before getting into law enforcement, explained that if Douglas’ traffic rises to insane Bakken-esque levels, there’s no way for law enforcement to ready itself beforehand. He said that activity on the level of the Jonah Field near Pinedale is a better example of what Douglas should expect.
As Douglas and Converse County’s boom continues to grow, Coates said the only way to prepare is to ensure the department is fully staffed and to have officers hired before the boom begins in earnest, so they’re adequately trained. The department is currently short two authorized positions and has two officers at the academy.
“Going into a boom is not the time you want to have to train personnel, because it leaves the citizens and town at a little bit of a disadvantage,” he said. “The officers coming into it have to learn on the job, in a trial-by-fire sense. That’s a little bit the way we’re going to be. We’re going to have a lot of new people.”
Police and sheriff departments across Wyoming struggle to find and retain officers. The problem is, for the most part, a nationwide one.
Casalenda said that whether or not the city is willing to pay for the hiring of additional officers is effectively a moot point.
“I can’t fill the authorized spots I’ve got,” he explained. “I could go ask council right now for six more officers, and if they granted it to me, it wouldn’t help a bunch because I’m not getting applications to fill the spots that I’m shorthanded now.”
The DPD isn’t the only Wyoming police department short on officers. Agencies can find themselves in bidding wars for staff. Retirement and the lure of high-paying oil field jobs are also nemeses for local law enforcement.
“Folks that are in law enforcement go to the oil field because the money’s so good,” Smith said. “It’s a never ending thing, it happened the last time.”
Casalenda said that 21 agencies in the state are currently trying to hire patrol officers.
“That’s a lot of departments looking for patrol people,” he said.
IT’S GONNA GET WINDY
With the 120 turbine Cedar Springs wind farm breaking ground this summer, the sheriff’s office and police department know that calls and traffic are going to pick up.
“It’s going to be 1,600 megaloads of oversized stuff,” Becker said, adding that the wind farm will bring more than 250 workers during peak construction during the summer of 2020.
Law enforcement can’t control how the entire community responds to the boom, Casalenda explained. He urged residents to never drive distracted and to be patient on newly-congested roads.
“This isn’t the small-town Douglas we used to live in 30-40 years ago,” he said. “People need to be cautious.”
He also encouraged those with an interest in becoming officers, or current officers in other departments, to consider joining the DPD.
“If there are people out there . . . we’re looking,” he said.
Oil field activity isn’t expected to let up any time soon, with most operators projecting their 2019 activity to exceed that of 2018. The county already led the state in oil production last year and set county all-time highs for both oil and gas.
Exactly how many people will come here in the next few years is unknown, but according to the BLM’s Converse County Environmental Impact Statement, which outlines a proposal for 5,000 new wells drilled over 10 years, Douglas’ population could nearly double.
“Are we going to react to it or are we going to prepare for it?” Smith wondered. “It’s out of my hands – I’m just a street guy.”