Rural counties in southern Oregon are suffering from the loss of the federal timber money that used to be the mainstay of county government budgets.
After repeated failed efforts to get residents to approve tax increases, officials in Josephine County made dramatic cutbacks in county services, including law enforcement.
In response, a growing number of armed citizen groups are cropping up to fill that public safety vacuum.
It’s after 10 p.m. as Sam Nichols and Alan Cress slowly cruise through the tiny town of O’Brien, shining super-bright spotlights into the shadows.
Sam Nichols: “We’re just checking this commercial building here, just to make sure there’s no one hiding around it or anything.”
Nichols’ king cab pickup has a yellow flasher on top and signs on the doors identifying it as a Citizens Against Crime patrol.
Sam Nichols: “We’re trying to be proactive. We’re trying to show the bad guys that we’re out there in force, and they better watch out.”
Alan Cress says the nightly armed patrols are meant to be an extra set of eyes and ears to deter criminal activity.
Alan Cress: “We’re not trying to play cops and robbers or 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.”
You might think, out in the country like this, there’s not much crime to speak of. But high unemployment and a growing drug problem – plus the sudden lack of law enforcement – has fed a growth in burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crimes. Nichols says the patrols have made a difference in O’Brien.
Sam Nichols: “There were five major thefts – travel trailers, automobiles. tractors, this sort of thing – before we started patrolling. Since we started patrolling, there hasn’t been a single one.”
For decades, revenue from timber sales on the federal land that makes up 70 percent of Josephine County kept property taxes low and the county government functioning. As logging dramatically declined, those payments dried up. Things came to a head in 2012, says Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.
Gil Gilbertson: “We went from a $12million budget to a $5.2 million budget … We reduced our workforce from, I think we had 98 down to 34, so 65 percent of our personnel were laid off.”
At one point, Gilbertson was forced to release dozens of inmates from the county jail as he downsized to meet reduced staffing levels. He was left with a single deputy to patrol the entire county. Police officers in Grants Pass, the county seat, had no choice but to cut petty criminals loose because there was nowhere to put them.
Ken Selig: “Right now, the only thing the Sheriff’s Office provides, really, is if you have a life-threatening situation, they will come out.”
Ken Selig lives in the small town of Merlin. Until May, 2012, Selig was a 33-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department. Faced with being laid off, Selig retired. But he says it quickly became obvious that the cutbacks had left a vacuum in which criminals grew bolder. He points to an incident where an elderly neighbor came home to find her door forced open. When she called the Sheriff’s Department, she was told that unless she was sure there was someone still in the house, no one would respond. Selig and former reserve deputy Pete Scaglione gathered other concerned neighbors and formed the North Valley Community Watch.
Ken Selig: “So we began to train. And I used the same lesson plans, the same things that when I taught at the academy.”
Ken Selig (in classroom): “What we’re going to do tonight is basically practice some room entries …”
On a weekday evening, Selig stands before a classroom whiteboard in a civic building in Merlin. He’s preparing members of the North Valley Community Watch Responder Team for a training exercise. They’re going to practice how to approach and clear a building where an intruder may be hiding. After making certain their side arms are unloaded, the group breaks down into small teams to search the building. Guns drawn, team members cautiously maneuver down the hallway, learning to move as a coordinated unit.
Trainee: “Neighborhood Watch! Police are on their way! Show us your hands!”
Selig says the group limits itself to doing what the Sheriff’s Department no longer does.
Ken Selig: “We go and we clear homes and businesses. We respond to trespassers. We respond to suspicious people in the neighborhood. And we create a presence there.”
The group also maintains a website and Facebook page, where locals report thefts or sightings of suspicious activity.
There are at least two other communities in the county with similar citizen safety groups, one in Cave Junction and another south of Grants Pass. Sheriff Gil Gilbertson says he supports neighborhood watch groups, and that citizen involvement is crucial, especially in remote rural areas. But he worries things could get out of hand. He recalls a community meeting he attended …
Gil Gilbertson: “And 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 for ourselves. Well, that really concerns me, that does concern me.”
Next month, Josephine County voters will have another chance to approve a property tax hike to restore the public safety budget. Two previous levies have failed.
But member of the citizen groups in both Merlin and O’Brien say they’ve found a new sense of civic involvement and self-reliance.
And even if the Sheriff’s Department returns to full funding, they say, they’ll continue protecting their communities.