- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

WATFORD CITY, N.D. (AP) - As construction begins on Williams County’s expanded jail and law enforcement center, work on a similar project in McKenzie County is on a fast track for completion.

A facility just outside of downtown Watford City will house all of the county’s law enforcement agencies, along with up to nearly 130 prisoners, when it’s done next spring, the Williston Herald (http://bit.ly/1WD8wUo ) reported.

The new jail’s capacity is huge compared to the existing holding pen, which only held nine inmates before McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger took office in January 2015, realized there was enough room in the cells for double bunks, and increased capacity to 21 beds. Still, there’s not enough room for the county’s usual daily count of 40 to 60 prisoners.

The new facility will start to recoup some expenses immediately by eliminating the more than $1.5 million in yearly housing and transport costs for local inmates who are sent to jails as far away as Fargo due to overcrowding.

County heads visited eight jails throughout the state to view successes and mistakes firsthand before making a plan of their own.

“It paid dividends for us to be so thorough,” Schwartzenberger said.

The $54 million project is designed as a law enforcement hub, with room for the Watford City Police Department, McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office, and offices for the Highway Patrol and Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

The new center, which will require 19 additional corrections officers, may also be the site of the county’s own 911 system. Police and deputies now rely on state radio based in Bismarck to relay emergency calls, a system that Schwartzenberger hopes to dispense with soon.

“For us, now, we just can’t do that anymore,” he said, adding that a committee is looking into the creation of a system handled by local dispatchers.

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Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show McKenzie County leading the country in growth, with a 16.7 population increase, from 11,000 people to 12,800 between 2014 and 2015. Williams County comes in second, growing 9.85 percent by gaining about 3,100 new residents last year.

In spite of the ongoing influx of new residents, effects of the energy industry’s slowdown are easily tracked in Williams County, where traffic crashes and violent crime dipped over the winter. The lull has allowed law enforcement to spend more time in investigations that may have been cut short in busier times.

“We’re trying to be more focused. We’re really trying hard now to give each case that comes in to the detective division the attention that the case deserves,” Lt. Detective David Peterson of the Williston Police Department said.

Burglaries and thefts now seem to be accounting for much of the caseload in Williston and Williams County, police say.

“That’s pretty typical of having a downturn in an economy,” Capt. Verlan Kvande of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office said, adding that substance abuse still appears to be the most powerful catalyst for local thieves. “Some of it is desparate people, but the vast majority of crimes have some sort of chemical issue.”

As local population and traffic volumes continue to reflect oil prices that are well below the peak of several years, ago, police in Williams County are aiming to make use of the slowdown.

“Now we’re able to do the job the way we’d prefer to do the job, with more attention to detail,” Kvande said. “Before it was so fast, it was literally put a band-aid on it and move on to the next thing.”

To the south, though, law enforcement in McKenzie County is still seeing much of the same hustle that flooded into the area several years ago.

In January, the Watford City Police Department hit 1,000 calls for service, making it the busiest month on record. On top of that, the department of 17 officers is still seven away from being fully staffed.

“We’ve doubled in size in two years, but it’s nearly impossible for a department of our size to hire that many people quickly. We’re still trying to get to the point where we’re comfortable in dealing with what we’ve got,” Watford City Police Chief Arthur Walgren said.

As in Williams County, burglaries and thefts make up the majority of calls, but police in Watford City respond to a significant amount of domestic violence incidents as well. “Those calls are probably our three most prevalent that come up,” Walgren said.

He stressed the need for a new jail, pointing out that because of the existing facility’s small capacity, people who are charged with Class B misdemeanors are cited and released with a promise to appear in court.

Sheriff’s deputies in McKenzie County are responding to more domestic calls as well, and are noticing increased heroin use. Now, there are quiet days, followed by cycles of activity.

“It goes in spurts now, before it was just a constant everyday thing,” Schwartzenberger said. “We’re moving forward, this is the time for us to build and train while it’s slow, so that we can be ready for the next one that comes, and I think another one is coming in 2017.”

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Information from: Williston Herald, http://www.willistonherald.com

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