Sheyanne Romero5:54 p.m. PT Jan. 18, 2017
Tulare County ranchers and farmers are getting a little help from the sheriff’s department in the form of water.
But it’s not what you might think.
Sheriff Mike Boudreaux announced Wednesday a new investigative tool being used by the department’s Agricultural Crimes Unit, SmartWater CSI.
Once sprayed on ag equipment, the liquid which is invisible, odorless, stays on a thief for up to five years without them noticing and is picked up using an ultra-violet light. The sheriff’s department is the first agency in the western United States to take advantage of the technology.
“We will use this tool to protect our ag partners,” Boudreaux said.
The invisible witness
Boudreaux referred to the product as a “silent, invisible witness”.
Antonio Arserio, general manager for SmartWater CSI, said the product is made up of water and solvent-based traceable liquids. Each vial has a unique chemical code that can be traced back to the farmer or person who registers it through a database.
According to the sheriff’s department, there are more than one billion one-of-a-kind forensic codes available from the manufacturer.
When sprayed on a surface, the liquid is not visible without the use of UV light. The items marked can be traced for up to five years, unless washed thoroughly. The spray is transferable to those who touch it.
The sheriff also plans to use mist devices that are motion-censored. This will spray thieves and leave footprints and fingerprints at the crime scene.
SmartWater was developed by a retired police officer and his chemist brother in the United Kingdom more than 19 years ago. However, detectives with the Ag Unit heard about the product from an Australian college professor, Alistair Harkness.
Harkness was researching ag crimes and explained to detectives the benefits of using a product in ag-related crime. They brought the research back to Boudreaux.
“We have great people assigned to the unit,” he said. “They grew up in this community and they understand the ag world.”
In areas where it’s been used, SmartWater CSI has reported double-digit reductions in property crime — between 35 and 45 percent.
“The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department is on the cutting edge of technology, as evident by their recent investment in the SmartWater CSI theft deterring and tracking technology,” said Tricia Blattler, executive director of Tulare County Farm Bureau. “As an organization that works with thousands of farmers each year, we are excited to see the sheriff’s department embrace this new technology, and expect that it can play an important role in deterring ag theft and rural crimes.”
The total cost to the sheriff’s department for the kits and equipment was roughly $58,000.
SmartWater vials will be issued to roughly 1,200 farmers and ranchers who are members of the Farm Bureau. Those interested can register with the sheriff’s department at the Tulare County Ag Expo, Feb. 14-16.
There is a total of 5,000 farmers and ranchers in the county.
Farmers and Ranchers will fill out a registration form linking them to a unique forensic code only found in their vial. The kit will be free of charge from the sheriff’s department and each kit can mark up to 50 items.
The department will provide training to business owners on how to use the product and what items should be tagged.
Billboards will go up warning potential thieves about the use of SmartWater to protect ag partners, Boudreaux said.
In 2016, there were more than 1,000 ag- and nonag-related property crimes assigned to detectives. Of those, only 214 were closed. In an effort to deter and reduce ag crime, Ultra Violet lights will be placed in Tulare County jails.
“When a thief comes through the jail that ultra violent light, lights up,” he said. “Someone who comes in has no right to privacy.”
The department is working with the District Attorney’s Office on how to prosecute cases using SmartWater.
“SmartWater is able to show a person was in an area where a crime occurred,” Boudreaux said.
This helps detectives work backward to solve the case, he added.
Once the sample is collected by deputies, it is sent to the Florida International University for testing. Results can take between three to 10 business days, Arserio said