The sheriff’s warning

rainey BARRETT
RAINEY

 
Second
Thoughts

“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 you believe the respondent may violate – you may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

Put another way, if someone is about to harm you – or even kill you – move!

Where you live, that statement may not sound very significant. But – in Grants Pass or Merlin or Cave Junction, Oregon – that message appeared on the official website of Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson. If you’re a woman with three small children – it’s 3 a.m. – your drunken ex is hammering on the door with the butt of his shotgun while shouting he’s “gonna kill you” – the significance is impossible to overstate.

The New York Times recently did a piece on the Josephine mess with the rhetorical question “The first clue to how dangerous it is to live on Oregon’s Josephine County? When no one answers the phone at the sheriff’s office.”

Yet this is life today in Josephine County. And it may soon be how things are in Curry and possibly Jackson Counties. It’s one thing when counties have to cut some clerks or some road workers or a planner or two. But it’s entirely another – a very life-threatening “another” – when jails are closed, violators are arrested and immediately released, prosecutor’s office staffs are cut in half or more, citizens arm themselves and start armed patrols.

It’s reliably estimated there are more than 100 such armed “peace keeper” amateurs out there. Just people like you and me with no official authority and certainly no official backing. Except they believe they’re “deputies” of a sort who are driving up and down the roads looking out for violators. With no training. No government support. No orders. No official oversight. And not a shred of legal protection if they shoot someone. Much less kill someone. Would you stop for some guy flashing his headlights in an unmarked pickup 10 miles from nowhere at midnight? What would he do if you didn’t? If you keep on driving, what’s he going to do?

In Josephine County, the armed imposters call themselves “North Valley Community Watch.” Leaders make the totally unsupported claim they can act as “a deterrent to crime.” Oh ya? When you had a full complement of lawmen – city and county – local people were still robbing banks, beating their spouses, driving drunk and killing their neighbors. So how are 100 or more guys without any law enforcement training or authority going to be a “deterrent” to the drunken wife-beater down the street?

The civil liability issue here is huge. Which is why Sheriff John Bishop in neighboring Curry County – in just as bad financial times – has put the kabosh on similar armed citizen wannabes. So far. He wonders aloud how civilians – lacking the trained split-second decision making skill of a real deputy – can do the right thing at the right second. What if the phony cop shoots an innocent person? Or even a guilty one? Who sues who?

Fact is, Curry County is in a bit worse shape top to bottom than Josephine or Jackson. The most recent two bond issues to raise money to take care of the worst situations were soundly killed. One by a margin of six out of 10 shouting “NO!” County and city officers are quitting. Recruiting good replacements is impossible. Though the state constitution requires an operating jail, even that is on the block. Along with emergency communications.

These three counties are in this mess largely because of poor political decisions by several past county commissions. More than a dozen counties have been receiving large annual payments of federal bucks tied to logging and/or payment-in-lieu of taxes for hundreds of thousands of acres of federal timber land. It’s been going on for years. Until recently. But the well is dry. For years, many past commissioners simply spent the federal “gravy” as it came in rather than raise taxes to keep up with changing times. A few other, smarter local commissioners put some of the largesse into “rainy day” savings accounts and are now budgeting with those dollars to offset the loss. But even that is coming to an end.

Oregon’s congressional delegation has been pushing legislative bills up the hill like so many peanuts. But – given the do-less-than-nothing nature of the situation along the Potomac – no substantial relief has been forthcoming. Oh, a bill passes here but dies over there. Or, one gets to committee and disappears into the swamp water. The fact is the federal spigot has not been turned on again. And the coffers of many Oregon countries are empty. As in Josephine. Or, damned near it as in Curry.

When your innocent life may be in danger and the best advice you can get from local law enforcement is to move out of town, the wise will take heed, rent a truck and go.

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