Oil county breaks ground on new jail, law enforcement center

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - As dozens of law enforcement officers lined up here Tuesday to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new jail, it was hard to believe that about six years ago the community had just four deputies and four police officers.

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – As dozens of law enforcement officers lined up here Tuesday to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new jail, it was hard to believe that about six years ago the community had just four deputies and four police officers.

McKenzie County leaders are building a new facility to house growing law enforcement resources - which will soon include 25 deputies and 19 sworn police officers - that have expanded in the state's busiest oil county.

The McKenzie County Combined Law Enforcement Center will include a 129-bed jail, saving the county money and staff time from transporting inmates as far as Fargo and Grand Forks due to lack of space.

The county in the heart of the Bakken has seen a rapid increase in crime in recent years along with the population growth.

"A lot of good people do come seeking opportunities, but also along with that comes opportunists, people who take advantage of our citizens, people who are here to deal drugs, to engage in human trafficking and other kinds of criminal activity," said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, one of the officials who attended the ceremony.

In addition to the sheriff's office and police department, the new facility will house the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Northwest Narcotics Task Force and other agencies.

"Unifying law enforcement agencies together in one building shows the citizens of McKenzie County our commitment to ensuring a safe and secure county to raise your families in," McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger said.

McKenzie County's current jail has 12 beds, but the county typically has 45 to 65 inmates in custody, Schwartzenberger said. The county spent $2.2 million last year to transport and house prisoners in other counties, he said.

The lack of jail space means that misdemeanor offenders or other nonviolent offenders sometimes have to postpone when they serve their sentence, said Northwest Judicial District Judge Robin Schmidt.

"Some people can't get into jail," Schmidt said. "I always tell them when they leave to make an appointment because it's a popular place."

County officials toured other facilities and studied the needs and determined that 129 beds would be a good number to start with, and the property will allow expansion of up to 200 beds if necessary, Schwartzenberger said.

County officials plan to finance the $57 million facility with a low-interest loan from the Bank of North Dakota and repay the loan with oil tax revenue. The North Dakota Industrial Commission is expected to vote on the proposal this month.

Excavation work has begun at the site, which is southeast of town at the corner of 12th Street and 11th Avenue Southeast. Construction on the 93,000-square-foot facility is anticipated to be complete in spring of 2017.

State legislators recently approved funding for 16 law enforcement-related jobs in Stenehjem's office, including two Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents to be stationed permanently in McKenzie County.

Watford City Police Chief Art Walgren said the BCI agents will be a big help for more complicated cases that affect multiple jurisdictions. For example, the city has recently seen an increase in financial crimes and referred 20 cases of stolen credit card information to the BCI, Walgren said.

The Highway Patrol, which had one trooper in McKenzie County a decade ago, now has six stationed in the county, said Col. Michael Gerhart. The new facility will give troopers a home base in Watford City and prevent them from having to drive to Williston to pick up equipment.

Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said the new facility is more than a response to the needs in northwest North Dakota.

"It's also a symbol of the community's ongoing commitment to public safety and quality of life," Wrigley said.