Thursday, April 24, 2014

Frontier justice revived in rural Oregon

I wrote this post last summer about the increase in neighborhood watches in nonmetropolitan Josephine County, Oregon, population 83,306.

Josephine County was back in the news this week in a segment on Jefferson Public Radio, the region's NPR affiliate.  The headline is "Citizen Volunteers Arm Themselves Against Crime in Rural Oregon," and Liam Moriarty's story provides an update on who is doing the law enforcement there in the wake of severe cuts to the county sheriff's budget.  The county has just a single deputy to patrol the 1640 square miles that make up Josephine County.  Local volunteers have stepped into the vacuum--for better or worse--and Moriarty reports that a former deputy is training some of the volunteers, including how to do things like search a building where an intruder may be hiding.

Cuts in sheriff department funding are linked to a decline in the timber industry and associated federal revenues.  When voters subsequently voted down two property tax levies, the sheriff's office staff was cut by two thirds.  Moriarty notes that he need for law enforcement is greater than one might expect in a rural area because "high unemployment, the growing use of meth and other drugs, and the sudden lack of law enforcement has fueled an explosion of burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crimes."

Moriarty's story features two community patrol volunteers, Sam Nichols and Alan Cress.
"We're just checking this commercial building here, just to make sure there's no one hiding around it or anything," Nichols says. 
Nichols' King Cab pickup has a yellow flasher on top and signs on the doors identifying it as a Citizens Against Crime patrol. 
Cress adds:  
We're not trying to take the place of law enforcement. In fact, we have a great deal of respect for what law enforcement does. We recognize the limited resources they have, and we're just trying to keep a presence out there.
As for Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, he supports the neighborhood watches but is concerned about what the future holds.  He recalls a recent meeting:
The gentleman sitting right next to me kept repeating, 'We're not going to hire any more of you guys, we're not going to pay for you because we can do this ourselves.' Well, that really concerns me.  …  That does concern me.
Josephine County residents will again have an opportunity next month to vote on a public safety levy.  But the outcome arguably won't matter much:  
But members of the citizens groups say they've found a new sense of self-reliance. Even if the sheriff's department returns to full funding, they say, they'll continue protecting their communities.
I note that the poverty rate in Josephine County is a round 20%, which places it in the high poverty category.   It is 93.8% white.

1 comment:

Dakota Sinclair said...

This reflects a bit of an issue with small counties. Services are in demand but money is not in supply. A high poverty rate of 20% would indicate why the one individual would be telling the sheriff they don't want to pay anymore...the money could go to other community projects.

On one hand I respect the community that wants to police itself and reject a professionalized police force. In many ways it removes the problems that come with police forces, as seen in recent affairs of police driving tanks or pepper spraying students. However it introduces new problems such as searching buildings without a warrant to do so, a lack of training on constitutional law and when one is allowed to act.

On the other hand I feel that the community could be trying to get federal money to help bolster the police department and get some of their needs met from outside the area. While self reliance is admirable, a botched investigation is not. Only one deputy patrolling the entire county, a department slashed to pieces due to budget cuts, does not bode well for the future. Those who want to violate the law can do so with the comfort of knowing their odds of getting away with it are good.