THREE FORKS - Gallatin County; 2,600 square miles, an area twice the size of Rhode Island, and just 36 Sheriff’s deputies to patrol it-- each one riding alone.
It was just last May when Broadwater County Sheriff’s Deputy Mason Moore was shot and killed while patrolling alone along Highway 287 near Three Forks.
It’s left many wondering, how can the authorities keep our troopers and deputies safe?
“Does that bother me, and does that scare me as a Sheriff? Absolutely, I mean, that could’ve been one of my deputies,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin.
“When you’re the resident Deputy in Big Sky or Yellowstone, you’re it, you’re the only one working in most cases,” Gootkin said.
“So, for instance, if you get called out to a bar fight or a domestic dispute in Big Sky, your nearest backup is either coming from West Yellowstone or Bozeman, so you’re talking a half an hour,” he said.
A big part of keeping deputies and troopers safe on the roads is relying on surrounding law enforcement for backup.
“The fortunate thing is we work very closely with the Sheriff’s Office, the Police Department, MSU PD, Fish and Game, the Forest Service, we can all hear each other, so when something large occurs, everybody can respond to that and essentially back each other up,” said Montana Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Wilfore.
Going solo isn’t out of the ordinary. For Montana Highway Patrol and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputies, it’s the norm.
“That’s the way our schedule is set up and it’d actually be odd to ride with somebody unless you’re on training,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Jern.
“It’s always in the back of your mind, especially when you know there’s certain situations where maybe no one is close at all, and I think it definitely is something you think about, but at the same time, if you have to go to somebody or somebody needs help, you gotta go. So i think you just remember that and do what you can to keep yourself as safe as possible,” said Jern.
But what if Deputy Moore wasn’t alone that day?
“He did everything by the book, and that’s probably what makes me the sickest as a sheriff, is there are some things that we absolutely don’t control, and looking at the case and everything that happened from it, if there were two deputies in that car, we might have had two dead deputies,” said Sheriff Gootkin. “That’s a tough thing, especially for a boss. For a leader, it’s tough to not control and make sure that your people are safe every shift, and we do the best that we can.”
Sheriff Gootkin said it would be impossible to cover the entire county if deputies were partnered, and while they added two deputies in 2015, adding enough to pair them up would be a significant expense to the county taxpayers.
Instead, they use training techniques like Crisis Intervention Training and interpersonal skills to communicate in hostile situations.
While law enforcement agencies throughout Montana are reviewing what happened to Deputy Moore, and finding ways that they can improve their emergency responses, they won’t forget that day in May.