DIY Law Enforcement in Cash-Strapped Oregon County
"They will not send an officer out, so we are on our own totally," says Sam Nichols, co-founder of Citizens Against Crime. CAC is a group of around 20 armed volunteers who have been conducting routine patrols in and around O'Brien, Oregon since last summer. CAC patrols "are always a minimum of two people," says Nichols, precisely because they want to avoid the kind of thing "that happened in Florida, the case where Zimmerman shot the boy."
Why are the citizens of O'Brien patrolling their own streets? Josephine County is a rural area in south western Oregon with serious budget problems. Back in 1916, the federal government bought up millions of acres of land that had been owned by the railroads. The move left 18 Oregon counties without a significant source of property tax revenue. To make up for the lost taxes, the feds began giving the Oregon counties a share of the timber revenues in 1937. The program worked until environmental regulations severely curtailed logging in Oregon. By 1998, timber revenues had dropped to just a third of what they were in 1989. Temporary federal timber subsidies filled the gap, but those subsidies were phased out last year.
This year, Josephine County slashed its public safety budget from $20 million to less than $9 million. As a result, the county was forced to release 39 prisoners, including people charged with assault, burglary and rape. Only three sheriffs patrol Josephine County, an area larger than Rhode Island, and those sheriffs only respond to life-threatening calls.
The self-reliant folks who live in Josephine County aren't likely to raise their own taxes any time soon, but lots of citizens are willing to do their part to deter criminal activity. Sam Nichols and the other members of Citizens Against Crime strap on guns, turn on flashing lights mounted on their vehicles and keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Former deputy sheriff Carol Dickson maintains a Facebook page called To Catch a Thief as a kind of virtual neighborhood watch program. The page currently has more than 1600 followers.
"Some people are taking the law into their own hands, which obviously scares the heck out of me," says Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson. But because of the severity of Josephine County's budget problems, Gilbertson isn't complaining too loudly. As he puts it, "law enforcement in this community is weak at best."
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