Jimmy Jones came face to face with rural crime with the murder of Mike Johnson, one of his county’s most beloved farmers.

The murder occurred shortly after Johnson noticed suspicious activity on his farm early one morning. An altercation with one or more trespassers resulted in his death — tragically by his own firearm.

This tragedy drove Jones, coordinator of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Henry County office, to work with several other key players on a comprehensive strategy to reduce the incidents of rural crime, which have spiked in recent years. 

Jones, the son of a law enforcement official, is especially interested in making farmers and other rural residents aware of the most effective safeguards for protecting themselves, their families and their property.

“The first rule of thumb for a farmer should be never to investigate what appears to be ia crime in progress,” he says. “That’s a task better left to law enforcement professionals.”

“The first priority should be calling 911 and, if the situation permits, taking down a tag number or making note of the trespasser’s physical description, though always from a discreet and safe distance.”

Jones teamed up with Jesse LaPrade, an Alabama Extension farm safety specialist, to develop comprehensive educational training and materials to provide farmers with the skills they need to reduce the incidence of these crimes. 

Their joint efforts were greatly enhanced recently by formation of a new statewide initiative known as the Agricultural and Rural Crimes Unit. Led by Lt. Gene Wiggins under the direction of Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, the 10-man unit has been credited with 14 felony arrests and recovery of more than $500,000 of stolen equipment after six weeks on the job.

While acknowledging this unit as a critical first step toward addressing the growing challenge of rural crime throughout the state, LaPrade says there are several essential proactive steps farmers should take to safeguard their assets.

The first step is working with other residents to organize a neighborhood watch effort, he says. 

“Every county sheriff’s department typically has a designated staff member who conducts this training on behalf of residents,” LaPrade says.

Beyond that, he says there are some other critical safeguards that farmers and other rural residents should introduce around their homes and businesses.

For starters, make a list. A thorough inventory compiled for insurance purposes in case of a break-in should be the first proactive step toward safeguarding one’s possessions.“Farmers typically have tens of thousands, If not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in tools and equipment that must be protected,” LaPrade says. “For insurance purposes, a list of all assets need to be made.”

But this doesn’t have to be an onerous undertaking.

It could be as easy as carrying a video camera or even a smart phone around the property to record these images digitally along with their approximate value.

“I make sure there is a graphic record of everything, and I make it a practice to update this record every year in January,” LaPrade says.

Added precaution

As an added precaution, he keeps an extra copy of these images in his office at work in the event of a fire or other accident.

While alarm systems are expensive, they are an excellent option, especially for farmers who are being challenged not only to safeguard farm implements but also expensive hardware such as precision farming equipment. And while the costs of these monitoring systems have risen in recent years, having one reduces insurance premiums, he says.

However, LaPrade cautions that some monitoring system companies to not operate in remote areas.

As an added safeguard in his own home and shop, LaPrade has installed motion detectors which, when tripped, send signals to the sheriff’s department.

He’s also installed cameras in areas around his home and shop where break-ins are likely to occur.  Many of these cameras can be purchased for as little as $50. These cameras are linked to video recording devices that begin recording when motion lights are tripped.

“Someone walks or drives up to the front or back of the house, the light and video recording device switches on,” LaPrade says.  “All these technologies are relatively inexpensive, but they’re worth their weight in gold.”

Another highly effective safeguard are timers, which can be programmed to turn interior lights, televisions and radios in homes and shops on and off during the night.

LaPrade says these relatively user-friendly, inexpensive devices can enable farmers and other rural residents to reduce the incidents of rural crime substantially.

“This will leave experienced criminals looking for the most vulnerable places, so make sure you safeguard your property so that it won’t be perceived as vulnerable,” he says.

Jones says even posting “No Trespassing” or “Authorized Personnel Only” signs on your farm are also good safeguard.  Likewise, tractors and other equipment should be parked in less conspicuous places.

LaPrade says farmers and others also should not discount the value of locks.  With most thefts occurring during the daytime, remembering to lock doors on the way to lunch or to undertake routine chores can go a long way toward reducing crime, he says.

In recent years, a major contributor to the spike in rural crimes rates has been scrap metal theft.

Thefts have involved everything from discarded metal to antique tractors.  Likewise, the copper wiring from pivot irrigation systems have become major focuses of theft, Jones says.

Under a new law, anyone who attempts to sell scrap metal to a vendor will have to submit a driver’s license in the future.   Sellers must also consent to being photographed before the sale can be completed.

Jones is also working with law enforcement and state agricultural officials to develop a system by which all farm equipment is assigned an I.D. number that is stored in a statewide database, better ensuring that stolen property is traced back to the owner.

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