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Enforcement Near Oil, Gas Sites Helps Drive Down Crime

Isolated oil and gas well sites can be enticing to criminals looking to score valuable equipment and scrap metal.

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) — Isolated oil and gas well sites can be enticing to criminals looking to score valuable equipment and scrap metal, but San Juan County authorities have a special program focused on solving such crimes. Authorities say they average about 175 cases a year.

Sheriff's Det. Mike Sindelar with the Rural Crimes Unit said the unit was started more than a decade ago to combat crime in the oil and gas industry, The Daily Times reported.

"The Rural Crimes Initiative started in 2006 because the industry had been suffering losses for decades," Sindelar said. "The Bureau of Land Management and those in the (oil and gas) industry came together to determine what program they could create that would address the problems."

Sindelar said the framework of the program is based off a Wise County, Texas, program called "Wise Eyes," which encourages cooperation among agencies and the public to help detect, report and solve such crimes.

He said the sheriff's office saw more than 500 oilfield crimes in the program's first year, but that number has gone down due to increased enforcement.

"As we began working cases, though, we started noticing that the same 25 to 30 people in the county were responsible for 95 percent of the crimes," Sindelar said. "Most of them had either worked in the oilfield or were still employed in the oilfield. As we began arresting these individuals, we saw the cases start to come down."

The county has more than 25,000 oil and gas wells, and property stolen at the sites includes batteries and solar panels. Profits made from the thefts often end up going to the drug trade, Sindelar said.

Authorities rely heavily on the public to watch for criminal activity at the well sites, which are spread out over thousands of miles in the county.

"Reporting is so important," Sindelar said. "The biggest thing is getting more eyes and ears out here so we'll have a higher ability to catch someone."

Sindelar said he expects to see more crime when the oil and gas industry picks up.

"The amount of crime is directly proportional to the level of activity in the oil field," he said. "But we'd be happy if (the oil and gas industry) came back, for the sake of the community."

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