The law in their own hands in Oregon timber country
An Oregon sheriff lost funding and citizens stepped in
O’BRIEN, Ore. — There’s no room in the county jail for burglars and thieves. And the sheriff’s department in a vast, rural corner of southwest Oregon has been reduced by budget cuts to three deputies on patrol eight hours a day, five days a week.
But people in this traditionally self-reliant section of timber country aren’t about to raise taxes to put more officers on the road. Instead, some folks in Josephine County, larger than the state of Rhode Island, are mounting flashing lights on their trucks and strapping pistols to their hips to guard communities themselves. A virtual neighborhood watch uses Facebook to share tips and information.
“I believe in standing up for myself rather than waiting for the government to do something for me,” said Sam Nichols, a retired marina manager.
Nichols has organized a posse of about a dozen fed-up residents to patrol the community of O’Brien, population about 750.
“We call ourselves the CAC Patrol, Citizens Against Crime,” he said.
About 10 miles away in Cave Junction, retired sheriff’s deputy Carol Dickson started a Facebook page, “To Catch a Thief,” whose nearly 1,200 members post reports of crimes that aren’t priorities for the county sheriff’s office. “In a rural community like this, we all know each other, and we’re all related,” she said.
“People know who’s doing this,” she said of the property crimes around the town of nearly 2,000 people.
Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson says he’s glad for the help but warns that law enforcement is dangerous work. “They need to really understand there are consequences that can be very costly, physically as well as legally,” he said, explaining that volunteers could get sued or shot if they pull a gun on someone or make a false arrest.
Policing expert Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says neighborhood watch efforts can be positive but turn into problems when volunteers “decide that instead of supplementing law enforcement, they are going to replace law enforcement. Then you cross potentially into vigilantism.”
Kenney said vigilantes tend to get “out of control — especially when people are armed. … People drawn to this sort of thing are the kinds of personalities more likely to take it too far.”
Nichols says what his group is doing is “not vigilantism at all. If it was, we would have taken care of a couple of problems a long time ago. … We knew who they were, where they lived.”