Under a low, heavy sky threatening sleet or snow, State Route 36 twists and turns along tree-topped ridges. In many spots, there’s no guardrail — just a spit of dirt between a driver and a thousand-foot drop.
This is a county where people are expected to take care of themselves, and in the last month, Tehama County itself has been operating without its own guardrail: Outgoing Sheriff Dave Hencratt said last month that deputies would no longer patrol during the day.
“This added reduction of services is necessary to manage a catastrophic staffing shortage throughout the agency,” Hencratt said in a Nov. 8 press release.
On a recent December morning, lots of people’s faces hung low and heavy as the clouds.
The sheriff frowned when he met a reporter at midday on the edge of his property, dressed in barn clothes, declining to comment. The county administrator frowned because the sheriff’s abrupt decision threw his office into chaos. The tavern owner frowned because he works 23 miles outside of town and hasn’t seen a patrol car in weeks. The elected leaders, the motel owners, the rural residents left to their own devices — everyone, it seems, in this stretch of land between national forests, is unhappy with the circumstances, and they each have a different idea for how to solve it.
“When we called 911 even before they stopped patrolling, they’d say ‘Sorry, we can’t make it, handle it yourself,’ ” said Catherine Gasper of the tiny town of Mineral. “That’s not what someone wants to hear when you’re getting beat up. But most people are armed up here, so we don’t worry too much.”
The decision to end daytime patrols — which generated sensational headlines and coverage from tabloids in New York City and London for a county whose entire population could fit inside Levi’s Stadium — was rooted in twin problems plaguing law enforcement across California and the country: There aren’t enough qualified new recruits to fill open positions, and a small, rural sheriff’s department like the one in Tehama County doesn’t pay its deputies enough to keep them long.
The state, meanwhile, isn’t making it any easier to hire police officers — particularly those who leave larger departments with shoddy disciplinary or criminal records and find employment at smaller organizations. New laws have raised the minimum hiring age of law enforcement officers to 21 and require the community college system to create a “modern policing” degree program by 2025, laying the groundwork for a statewide officer education minimum.
In Tehama County, tensions had been building for months, if not years. Hencratt told the Red Bluff Daily News in February that other law enforcement departments were treating his office like a “supermarket of employees.”
“When (the) 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,” Hencratt told the newspaper.
Tehama County usually makes its hires from newly graduated applicants, said Tehama County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick. Since the county pays so poorly — about 22% below market rate, according to a county-commissioned compensation study from August — the new recruits don’t stay long. The police department in the county seat of Red Bluff pays better, and law enforcement in the nearby city of Redding and surrounding Shasta County both offer higher salaries and hiring bonuses of several thousand dollars.
The system operated well for decades: Sheriff’s deputies left for higher-paying jobs, and their roles were filled by new recruits. But the labor market is tight and policing isn’t what it once was. Scores of incidents filmed on cell phones across the country have revealed the casual brutality of so-called bad apple cops, which legislators and civil liberties advocates argue drives potentially qualified applicants away from policing. Applications for policing are down, according to the Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training. Fewer applicants means smaller graduating classes. Their absences show up first in places like Tehama County.