Today in Josephine County six sheriffs’ deputies patrol an area with a population of 80,000. Their territory stretches from Grants Pass to the California border.
Voters there are considering a tax levy in next week’s special election that would raise about $9.5 million to hire more deputies and fund the jail.
Reporter Amelia Templeton takes a look at the county’s public safety issues. And a warning, this story may not be suitable for children.
In rural Josephine County, a tax increase is a hard sell. The county’s tax rate is the lowest in Oregon, at 59 cents per $1,000 of property value. The levy would raise that rate to $1.48 for the next three years.
Les Monk runs a convenience store just outside Grants Pass.
“I’m not going to vote for it. Things are no worse or better now than they were when they were fully funded.”
Like some people here, Monk says he doesn’t trust law enforcement. He says he can take care of himself. He pulls his shirt to the side to prove the point.
Monk says, “Anything I’m carrying, you’ll see it on me.”
Amelia Templeton: “So what are you carrying right now?”
Les Monk: “A knife. People have to understand you will, and are able, to defend your property.”
But supporters of the levy say not everyone in the county can defend themselves. They say a consequence of having so few deputies is that vulnerable people like women and the elderly are increasingly victims of crime.
Last year, the Josephine County sheriff’s department lost a multi-million dollar federal subsidy for timber dependent counties.
The sheriff laid off 23 deputies and eliminated the entire major crimes division. Of the six deputies left, two are limited to patrolling federal forest lands and the Rogue River because of the way they are funded.
After the cuts, the Sheriff put out a press release warning victims of domestic violence to “consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”
Then, on August 18 of last year, a woman in Cave Junction placed this call.
911 Emergency tape:
Woman: “My ex-boyfriend is trying to break into my house. I’m not letting him in but he’s like, tried to break down the door and he’s tried to break into one of the windows.”
The threat she was reporting was real. Her ex, a man named Michael Bellah, eventually pleaded guilty to kidnapping, assault, and sex abuse for what he did when he got inside the house. The woman has asked us not to use her name.
When she called 911, she explained that Bellah had hurt her before.
Woman: “He put me in the hospital a few weeks ago and I have been trying to keep him away.”
The call came in on a Saturday at 4:58 in the morning. Because of the staffing limitations, Josephine County deputies are only available 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. So the dispatcher transferred her call to the state police.
Dispatch tape: “Oregon State Police Police, this is Ray. Hi Ray, this is Deena, Jo-County 911. I have a caller.”
The Oregon State Police say their primary responsibility isn’t responding to 911 calls like this one. It’s traffic safety, patrolling the highways.
But in the rural parts of Josephine County, the State Police are often the only law enforcement agents available on the weekends.
Since the county layoffs, their office in Grants Pass has received about 3 times as many calls as in the past. But it’s a small office. Here’s a recording of the state police dispatcher’s response to the woman’s call for help that day.
State police tape: “Uh, I don’t have anybody to send out there. You know, obviously, if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away? Do you know if he’s intoxicated or anything?”
Woman: “I’ve already asked him. I’ve already told him I was calling you. He’s broken in before, busted down my door, assaulted me.”
The State Police dispatcher stays on the phone with the woman for 10 minutes and 21 seconds. She asks if Bellah has a weapon. The woman says no. She tells the dispatcher there’s already a warrant out for Bellah’s arrest.
Dispatcher: “Is he still there?”
Woman: “Yes, he is.”
The dispatcher tells the caller to try to hide in the house. And four times in total she says there isn’t anyone who can help.
Dispatcher: “Once again it’s unfortunate you guys don’t have any law enforcement out there. “
Woman: “Yeah, it doesn’t matter, if he gets in the house I’m done.”
According to police records, a few minutes later Michael Bellah used a piece of metal to pry open the woman’s front door. He choked her, and sexually assaulted her. Later that day he was arrested by the State Police.
Gil Gilbertson is the Josephine County Sheriff. Gilbertson didn’t want to discuss the details of this particular case. But he says, unfortunately it’s common for victims of crime in Josephine County to call 911 and not get a response.
“There isn’t a day go by that we don’t have another victim,” Gilbertson says.
He ties that directly to the lack of funding.
“If you don’t pay the bill, you don’t get the service,” he says.
Sergeant First Class Jeff Proulx is the supervisor at the Oregon State Police Grants Pass office.
“I don’t have the resources to respond to everyone’s call, unfortunately,” Proulx says.
Proulx also wouldn’t answer questions about the 911 call from the woman seeking help last year.
He says four extra troopers have been temporarily transferred to his office, to cut the response time to calls. He usually has just two troopers working per shift. And they only respond to 911 calls about life-threatening emergencies in progress.
“If it’s an immediate threat, or a serious physical injury has happened, we will respond. Our response time may be limited or delayed based on other calls, because I don’t have the resources.”
Through her attorney, the woman who made the emergency call said in a statement she felt hopeless, alone, and very scared on that day. She says she is aware of the levy on the ballot, and thinks the funding could help prevent situations like the one she lived through.
Chris Mallette runs the Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance. She provides counseling and services to victims of domestic violence and rape. Bags of clothes and children’s toys are stacked up outside her door.
“The whole system has crumbled, and we’re the only ones left. And we don’t have the badge, and we don’t have the gun.”
Mallette says since the public safety cuts last year, she’s seen women give up on trying to get help from the police and choose instead to stay with their abusers.
“Because they’re more likely to get killed if they leave, they’re more likely to be stalked when they leave. “
Voters will decide on the public safety levy in the May 21 Special Election.
Thursday, we’ll hear about Lane County’s proposed public safety levy. It would make more jail beds available to hold prisoners.