Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger
A worrisome situation has been created in a rural Josephine County Oregon. Approximately seventy percent of the land area in the county is owned by the federal government which provided millions in revenue from timber subsidies. That source of finding for the county stopped due to a termination of payments by the federal government and in an attempt to fill a budget shortfall of over $7,500,000 the county asked the voters to fund a tax levy. The levy, which was projected to assess $300 on a $200,000 home was defeated in a narrow election. The result of the loss of both revenue sources caused a routing of the sheriff’s office budget, personnel and services.
The effect of this has led to cuts in services and patrol that has effectively led to a major transfer of the traditional roles of county policing from local government to irregular citizen’s patrols and the farming out of what little remains in the sheriff’s office to private contractors and outside agencies. Could situations like this resurrect some of the nineteenth century practices necessary in the West that are no longer compatible with twenty first century American Society?
Josephine County is in Southwest Oregon having Grants Pass as the county seat, has a population of 83,000 and encompasses 1,542 square miles. The sheriff’s office is administered by elected sheriff Gil Gilbertson.
In May of 2012 in a press release authorized by Sheriff Gilbertson the agency undertook drastic cuts in personnel and services provided. In that press release the following actions were to be taken:
- The sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit will cease operations. Current, open criminal cases have been referred to the District Attorney’s Office, but there will be no further investigative follow-up done by sheriff’s detectives.
- The Records Division, which fields non-emergency phone calls and completes many state-required functions, will close. Non-emergency reports may be submitted by citizens online… but the reports will simply be logged for information. There will not be any deputy follow-up or investigation.
- The Civil Division will be reducing its hours to Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 4 p.m.
- Patrol services will decrease from 20 hours a day, 7 days a week to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. The total number of patrol personnel will decrease from 24.5 to 6. Of the remaining six, one is a sergeant and three are contracted by other entities.
- Contract deputies’ primary responsibilities are to those entities that pay their salaries – namely, the City of Cave Junction, the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon State Marine Board. Therefore, their availability to respond to areas outside their contracts will be extremely limited.
- Considering the quantity of high priority calls that this office receives, it is clear that patrol will only be able to respond to life threatening incidents.
- Sheriff’s deputies will respond to life threatening calls only during patrol hours of operation, which are not being publicized for safety reasons. There are no funds available for call outs, so sheriff’s deputies will not be available to respond after hours.
- 911 calls after hours, and if it is a life threatening situation, Oregon State Police will provide a limited response that involves eliminating the current threat.
- Sheriff’s patrol deputies will be spread thin, and their response, even in life threatening situations, may be delayed.
- As such, the Sheriff’s Office regretfully advises that, if you know you are in a potentially volatile situation (for example, you are a protected person in a restraining order that you believe the respondent may violate), you may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.
- The jail will be releasing about 60 inmates to get to a level at which the decreased number of staff can safely manage the population. Further information on release procedures and times will be publicized closer to the time(s) of release, for safety reasons.
From a law enforcement perspective these cuts evoke troubling predictions of events to come. The first to be of great concern would be the cutting back of patrol hours from 20 per day to 8, 7 days to 5. One can see the systemic and trickledown effect as follows:
Many departments have callout times, which means periods of no scheduled patrol, resulting in calls to off duty officers to return to patrol to handle a priority call. Callouts usually result in overtime. Because of these service cuts swaths of 16 to 24 hours each day are not patrolled and the directive also declares during these times no deputy will be called out due to costs. Lack of patrol usually leads to increases in crime. Citizens having non-emergency calls during off times are directed to a private contract law enforcement records website. The records are collated and downloaded by the department to provide case report numbers and little else. It was indicated that no investigation would follow. Non-investigation curtails nearly completely the opportunity to arrest an offender and perhaps stopping other future crimes. When an arrest does occur there are certainly going to be booking restrictions so all but the most serious crimes will result in incarceration of the offender. Lack of response to crimes, can lead to belief among offenders of a small likelihood of arrest and will encourage crime. Lack of response also has the effect of creating a greater sense of apathy in the citizenry where they become unwilling to call the police even when they have been clearly victimized. And lastly it will certainly lead to tragedy and can foster the rise of citizens taking matters into their own hands or sew the seeds of vigilantism.
Even traditional efforts to mitigate lack of patrol resources have been curtailed. Reserve Deputies or Posse are typically used but the sheriff’s office states on their website it is no longer to have reserves patrol individually due to the high cost of gasoline and vehicle maintenance.
One year later, burglaries were up 50% in Grants Pass and 42% of the rest of the county. (These are cases that are actually reported) Grants Pass Public Safety Director Joe Henner commented the county is seeing a failing criminal justice system. “Our officers are saying they’re having more hostile and violent encounters with suspects, who are challenging them and fighting.” From an officer safety point of view this is dangerous; increasing violence, fewer deputies available for backup.
Total Felony and Misdemeanor prosecutions dropped from 2,400 to 1,400 due to the effect of staffing reductions in the District Attorney’s Office.
If the trend continues and crime rises it can lead to economic and civil decay that can feedback loop into less revenue and more problems for the criminal justice system. Blight causes property values and consequently tax collections to fall. Flight of residents to other areas due to crime adds to the problem along with diminishment of attracting outside investment and loss of reputation. Studies in criminology have shown that severe economic downturns usually result in increases in crime, further distressing an already crumbling criminal justice system.
As a direct result of these problems Ken Selig a former Law Enforcement Officer, forced into retirement due to budget cuts, and Pete Scaglione formed the North Valley Community Watch. The NVCW proffers to have 100 members meeting monthly to discuss crime and provide training. It also has a response team of twelve personnel who will respond to a reported non-life threatening call if summoned by one of the residents.
According to the NVCW website, they provide an umbrella service for local block watch organizations and assist citizens in reporting incidents to law enforcement. Additionally they state they can provide services to citizens through their responder service “designated to assist our members with potential problems law enforcement is unable to address”. The website parallels the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) website for using an online reporting system. JCSO hired citizenserviceportal.com for the aforementioned citizen crime reports, and NVCW created an analogue to this with their own. At the latter, a citizen can submit an e-mail requesting assistance. The website also has an architecture that is similar in many ways to a sheriff’s office website having: Links to jail inmate lists; the JCSO crime reporting site; stolen vehicle VIN checks; tax lot maps; property ownership searches; radio scanners; Oregon Revised Statutes; and Circuit Court Calendars. There is also a page where NVCW members can “NVCW members use this (upload) page to submit surveillance and evidence photos and documents to be catalogued in the NVCW database”, a form of records department. This might raise concerns about loosely organized band of citizens, taking “evidence” and other personal information can lead to risks of security and sensitive information and lack of oversight that is inherent in heavily regulated government law enforcement databases.
Several headlines in the media drew attention to the fact the NVCW provides an armed response. Oregon is a state that allows concealed weapons for licensed citizens. NVCW states its policy is to not respond to life-threatening calls and will respond to others if JCSO or OSP is unable to. It also provides services such as
The following is a list of situations the NVCW Responder Team will address for NVCW program members when law enforcement has been previously notified and indicated they will not respond:
- Checking and clearing business and residential buildings when the owner feels a trespasser or burglar may still be present.
- Responding to suspicious persons lurking in the neighbourhood so that a deterrent presence is provided.
- Responding to concerns that a person is trespassing on private property not open to the public.
- Where NVCW members have been victimized by a burglar or thief and needs assistance in reporting the crime to law enforcement.
The NVCW, according to their website, does not respond to felony calls, domestic disturbances, or civil disputes.
The situation has the potential to result in a breakdown in the traditional order of what society expects from modern law enforcement and to a certainly measurable degree has. The NVCW and other citizens groups like it are evidence of this. Having citizen agents responding to what might be a minor call such as a cold storage shed burglary has the potential to escalate instantly to a dangerous situation where the burglar was hiding and chooses and armed reaction. Furthermore the level of training of these responders, if they are ordinary citizens, is going to be substandard to those required of professional and reserve law enforcement officers. Lack of training and experience, coupled with loose background and suitability requirements will lead to problems great and small.
While the current leadership of NVCW might be good as is the case with having a retired law enforcement officer in its leadership. Lack of public oversight and events can lead to a breakdown of whatever professionalism level they might have and it could reduce towards essentially extra-legal practices.
In the “Old West” resources and the relatively rudimentary and fledgling police practices of the time relied heavily upon citizens taking matters into their own hands or forming watch groups which sometimes were as problematic as the crime they were self appointed to address.
Many remote and sparsely populated areas had a few professional law enforcement officials who relied heavily on assistance from these groups or individuals. It is a system that certainly has flaws but was the reality during the time. Are we seeing this structure about to be repeated?
The future does not look hopeful if some fundamental revenue sources are not acquired, either locally or provided by the state in the form of direct revenue or like kind contributions such as the establishment of a state police augmentation. Long term problems are inevitable. Hopefully a resolution could be found before things worsen.