Small law enforcement office a big deal

July 22, 2007 11:00 pm

The building is modest at best, measuring only 230 square feet. That's smaller than walk-in closets in some of today's upscale homes.

But the old administration office at the state's Twain Harte fire station could make a big difference to the community, which of late has been plagued by crime. Tuolumne County supervisors last week voted to lease the building from Cal-Fire, which is rebuilding the Meadow Drive complex, and open a sheriff's and probation office station in it.

"It's like ground zero," said Supervisor Teri Murrison, whose district includes Twain Harte. "From that office, you can get a look at all the areas where we've had trouble."

The Meadow Drive building is less than a block from downtown and is close to Eproson Park and the town ball diamond. It also looks directly on an area behind the 7-Eleven store, which Murrison says has been a notorious hot spot.

Twain Harte crime since January, according to the Sheriff's Office, has included 46 burglaries, 51 thefts, 38 reports of vandalism, 25 "juvenile problem calls," 40 disturbances and 101 suspicious persons. Doesn't sound like peace in the pines.

A law enforcement presence is certainly a key to quelling this kind of crime wave and finding a home for it was a joint effort.

With the lease on its Community Service Unit (CSU) office expiring, Sheriff's Jim Mele asked Murrison if she knew of any available buildings in Twain Harte. She mentioned this to Mike Noonan, chief of Cal-Fire's Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, who suggested the administration building. The little wood-frame office was set to be razed as part of the state's $3 million rebuilding job, but the county board acted quickly enough to save it from the dozers.

The county will pay Cal-Fire $5,000 in annual rent for the building and put out $70,000 to $80,000 to add a bathroom and small parking lot. The office will quarter deputies assigned to the area, CSU volunteers and probation officers working with youths convicted of crimes or in danger of arrest.

But no single step can solve Twain Harte's crime problem. And that the community is aware that the answer involves more than simply bringing in more cops increases the odds of success.

A plan began to take shape after a March 15 town meeting. A committee of community members and representatives of county departments and organizations was then formed.

The Sheriff's Office has since focused its efforts on getting Twain Harte's most notorious troublemakers — repeat offenders, drug dealers and the like — off the street. Meanwhile, said Murrison, the committee is looking to help "the rest of the kids swept along in their wake."

Coordinated by Shirlee Juhl, the county's chief probation officer, a survey on needed Twain Harte youth activities was filled out by more than 50 teens. The results will be reviewed by committee members tonight and the young people themselves may be invited to a future meeting.

The panel's goals are worthy, but having deputies and probation officers in town — both to get offenders off the street and to open a dialogue with teens who may be lured in that direction — may be the most important piece of the puzzle.

That's why that 230-square foot office in Twain Harte may turn out to be some of the most valuable real estate in Tuolumne County.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; executive editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.