Two additional sheriff’s deputies have been hired to serve southern Broadwater County, significantly increasing law enforcement presence in the Wheatland area near Three Forks.
Broadwater County Sheriff Wynn Meehan said the deputies were hired because the Wheatland population is increasing rapidly, along with a surge in criminal activity in the area, which is located just north of Interstate 90 along Highway 287.
“The drug world has found a nice niche in the I-90/287 junction. You can go multiple directions fairly quickly, and it’s caused a lot of headaches,” Meehan said. “We wanted more law enforcement presence so it’s not such a long response from Townsend or the northern part of the county.”
The nearby city of Three Forks lies wholly within Gallatin County, but its ties with the Wheatland area aren’t so clearly delineated.
“That’s sort of a Bermuda Triangle with four counties that touch one another,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, referring to the counties of Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin and Broadwater.
Portions of the Three Forks School District, for example, extend into Broadwater and Jefferson counties. The Three Forks Rural Fire District and ambulance service cover the Wheatland area. And at this time last year, when Broadwater County officials were considering approving an economic development district to encompass a 4,500-seat amphitheater and brewery complex on 250 acres across Highway 287 from Wheat Montana Deli and Bakery, Three Forks officials vociferously expressed concerns about the impacts of such development on their town. Broadwater County Commissioners nevertheless approved the plan, and Meehan says the imminent development there is another reason he wanted to establish more deputies in the area.
Before the new officers were hired, only one Broadwater County deputy was assigned to cover southern Broadwater County four days a week,
a fact Meehan believes has not been lost on wrongdoers. He said most of the arrests in that area of the county occur in the junction area between Town Pump, Wheat Montana and Teasers.
“It’s out of the way and I think most people know that there’s a limited amount of law enforcement presence there. That has invited people, so to speak, to engage in their bad behavior in that area,” he said.
In addition to drug offenses, common arrests in the Wheatland are made for stolen vehicles, thefts, and warrants. The work can be dangerous; Meehan said he hopes that having a larger law enforcement presence will prevent another travesty in the southern part of the county where Deputy Mason Moore was killed in the line of duty in May 2017, only two miles from where Highway Patrol Trooper David DeLaittre was shot and killed while on duty in December 2010.
The well-being of deputies is one reason Broadwater County officials have talked about locating a public safety station in the southern part of the county. Deputies assigned to southern Broadwater County would be stationed there, and the area fire and ambulance services could park vehicles on site.
“My guys and gals can’t spend 35 to 40 minutes getting from Townsend to Three Forks,” Meehan said, noting the very real dangers of hitting a large animal on the rural highway when traveling at high speeds. “I’d like to see the plan moving forward by the end of next year.”
Ideally, the facility would be open to officers from multiple jurisdictions who need access to a desk or holding cell, Meehan said. Though a preliminary design for such a facility has been completed, the pandemic has stalled any further progress toward its fruition. Meehan said he hopes Broadwater County will find a funding source and the plans could begin taking shape within the next year.
In the meantime, the three Broadwater County deputies assigned to the southern part of the county have been granted permission by Sheriff Gootkin to use the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office in Three Forks as needed.
The two sheriffs have long worked cooperatively to ensure that calls are being covered east and west of the county line, an arrangement they plan to continue. Both said they intend to cross-deputize their respective personnel in the Three Forks area to allow one of the other to take action in the neighboring jurisdiction until backup can arrive.
“It makes it easier to get things done without a lot of red tape,” Meehan explained.
Gootkin said the city of Three Forks contracts with his office for the services of three deputies who are based in the city. A fourth Gallatin County deputy is assigned to the area west of Manhattan and often assists throughout the western part of the county.
Broadwater County’s new deputies are Justin Walker, who previously worked as a detention officer in Gallatin County, and Bryson Rowe, who was a detention officer in Broadwater County. Their positions are being funded by a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant from the Justice Department.
Meehan said he hopes to acquire a dog to assist officers in the Wheatland area, where “the amount of drug traffic at I-90 Town Pump is staggering at times.” He also is working to fill an open coroner position.