Specialized police rural unit serves a specialized role.
On patrol in eastern Manatee County, Sgt. Robert Hendrickson of the Community-Oriented Policing Squad listened as the call came over his police radio.
A cow was loose on State Road 64.
While seemingly trivial in the grand scheme of police work, a cow on the highway can lead to a dangerous situation with vehicles dodging the animal at 70 miles-per-hour.
A Sheriff's Office deputy, assigned to the S.R.-64 substation and not a member of Hendrickson's four-man, Community Oriented Policing staff, was on site.
The deputy had checked the fence along the highway and didn't see any openings where the cow had gotten loose.
“Was it a cow or a calf?” Hendrickson said over his radio.
A long pause ensued. Was that important information?
“A calf can slip through the fence," Hendrickson said. "All you have to do is push him back toward the fence and he’ll go back through on his own.”
Hendrickson said a full-grown cow could only have escaped through a gap of some kind, a breach he would want to tell the rancher about so the same problem wouldn't be repeated.
It was the kind of problem Hendrickson's small unit deals with on a daily basis as it patrols a mostly rural Manatee County area more than 100 miles in circumference. The unit patrols county parks and checks on ranching operations, responds to reports of livestock neglect and even deals with loose animals.
They also deal with issues such as illegal landscape dumping, junk yard scrap metal thefts, livestock rustling or livestock neglect cases. Along the way, they make the usual traffic stops, and even respond to dispatch calls if they are in close proximity.
While the backseat of Hendrickson’s police vehicle has specialized gear such as night vision goggles, mud boots and a tranquilizer gun, the usual tools of the police trade are present as well, such as a reflective jacket, a shot gun and an AR-15 rifle.
Those in the unit also have to be ready to respond when they are off duty.
“We’re on call all the time because we’re dealing with unique stuff,” said Hendrickson, who in his spare time helps care for the horses used by the Sheriff's Office.
It's a specialization that has led to familiarity among those who live and work in rural areas of Manatee County. When Hendrickson enters the Duette County Store, owners Sineath and Mike Seng greet him with a wave and a friendly hello and ask about his family.
“They’re good people,” Hendrickson said of the Sengs as he leaves.
Later in the same shift, he walked into Myakka Ranch and Farm Supply, and owner Donnie Parks started an immediate conversation while Hendrickson filled up his water bottle. Most of Parks’ customers are on a first-name basis with the sergeant.
As Hendrickson drives his route, he passes homes and businesses and he can name those who work or live there. The familiarity among the residents is likewise as the leader of the Community-Oriented Policing Squad, formerly known as the agriculture unit, has gained their respect over the years.
All four members of the rural unit live in or around Myakka City. They know every nook and cranny of the agricultural community, so more often than not, they’re asked to respond to calls even if it’s not within their realm of duties.
The four men, Hendrickson, Justin Yero, Garrett Johnson and Mike Ference, have gained so much trust they are requested if a situation leads to another Sheriff's Office deputy responding in their domaine. People even have the four men's cell numbers, so they don't bother to call dispatch about problems.
“You can give them tickets and they’ll still say 'Thank you,'” Yero said. “I love working out here. You’re so much closer to the community.”
David Parks, co-owner of Myakka Ranch and Farm Supply, said the members of the rural unit make themselves accessible to the community, and people in Myakka and the surrounding communities aren’t afraid to approach them with questions, concerns, or issues.
“Crime can come to the rural area when there’s no law enforcement, so their presence helps a lot,” Parks said. “It keeps the rural problems down.”
Hendrickson said those who live in the community have some unique expectations that must be respected.
When members of the unit answer a call, the person at the door just might invite them to enjoy a glass of tea or even try to feed them dinner.
“They expect you to sit down while they tell you what the issue is, so you better sit down with that glass of tea,” Hendrickson said.
Ference is the longest-standing member of the unit at 12 years. Yero has worked with the unit for eight years and Johnson for two-and-a-half years. Hendrickson has worked three years with the unit after returning for his second run.
“It’s a different pace out here,” Ference said. “You can be what a community policing unit should be. They appreciate us out here.”
John Bombera, owner of Myakka Tire, has had his business in the heart of Myakka City for 19 years, and he said members of the unit and the community are close.
“I’ve got them on speed dial," Bombera said. "Everybody knows them, and everybody trusts them,” he said. “When the town cops show up then everybody gets scared.”