Vernon Parish Sheriff Sam Craft and his personnel not only deal with the day-to-day issues that face any law enforcement department, but wrestle with issues somewhat unique to Vernon Parish.
Vernon Parish, in which Leesville is the parish seat, is located on the Louisiana-Texas border and is home to approximately 54,000 residents. The parish is about 1,342 square miles in size and much of it is rural. Leesville is its only city, and other municipalities are towns, villages or unincorporated communities.
In addition, the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk lies just a handful of miles from the Leesville – New Llano area, adding another piece to the puzzle.
All of these areas sprawling across this west-central parish fall under the jurisdictional umbrella of the Vernon Parish Sheriff’s Office, headed by Sheriff Sam Craft and operated by a crew of dedicated professionals who place their lives on the line from the time they leave home until they walk back through their doors.
Craft and his personnel not only deal with the day-to-day issues that face any law enforcement department, but wrestle with issues somewhat unique to Vernon Parish.
“We’re fighting drugs every day,” said Craft. “We’re not removed from any problem any other areas have. We have the prescription pill problem. We have not had the meth problem…to the extent that a lot of other areas do, [where it’s] like an epidemic.”
Illegal drugs are a problem in the parish, however, as evidenced by the three sizable marijuana plots found in western Vernon Parish last summer in the Evans-Burr Ferry area. A forester who was marking trees located the first patch. The second was spotted from the air during a fl-over, and the third was found with the help of a parish resident who reported an unfamiliar car with unknown individuals. The citizen called the sheriff’s department right away, and soon thereafter, the third marijuana stand was located.
“We weren’t able to arrest anybody, but we were able to identify three sets of fingerprints, and we sent that information to the Border Patrol and other agencies,” he said. “That information is also in the NCIC (National Crime Information Center, the United States’ central database for tracking crime-related information), so if these individuals are caught, law enforcement will already know they’re being looked for.”
Craft described the sophistication with which the marijuana plots were planned, cultivated, and irrigated, hidden carefully among thickets of pine trees to keep them inconspicuous.
“They were always near water, and they’d hollow out a place to set pumps down in the ground and put a piece a plywood over them so no one would hear them running,” he explained. “It was a very sophisticated operation. They knew what they were doing.”
He added similar marijuana stands have been found in neighboring Texas and Oklahoma, and all three bore the same hallmarks of design and operation.
In addition to external threats, internal issues, such as a lack of money and finding – and keeping – quality personnel also affect the department’s ability to handle them.
Craft addressed the budget within which he must work to ensure the best and most efficient operation of the department.
“Money is always an issue,” he said. “With the rising cost of fuel, insurance, operations…costs go up but the budget pretty well stays the same.”
“We were able to implement some pay raises with a half-cent sales tax passed a couple of years ago, so we can pay a more competitive salary. We don’t see the turnover rate here or in the correctional facilities like we used to.”
Craft said acquiring grants helped offset the costs of purchasing replacement vehicles, maintaining them, and acquiring specialty equipment for atypical situations.
“We have ATVs, a command center, and a boat,” Craft said. “We have Anacoco Lake, Vernon Lake, and although Toledo Bend is not in Vernon Parish, we’ve had some of our people drown or go missing there and we feel obligated to help.”
Craft places great importance on relationships, both with other law enforcement agencies and the people he protects.
“We try to stay abreast of everything that we hear where there might be a problem, be it meth or pills or whatever situation it may be,” Craft added. “We have a good working relationship with our neighbors at Fort Polk, with the Leesville city police, with the FBI.”
Despite the best efforts of both law enforcement and criminal justice agencies and personnel in the area, Craft admitted recidivism rates are relatively high.
“Some of these people get into a place where they don’t necessarily dread jail,” he said. “After they get out, they go back into the same places and fall back into the same patterns, and it’s not long before we see them back again.”
At the end of the day, however, Craft still thinks his work is the pinnacle of vocations.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the best job anybody could have,” said Craft. “As I instruct my employees, we’re working for the people of Vernon Parish. They’re our employer; we do what they want us to do as efficiently and effectively as we can.”