Sheriff: Concerns becoming a reality

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer April 30, 2013 08:38 pm

Curry County Sheriff John Bishop’s worst nightmares are already becoming reality.

Last week, a woman shot herself. Ambulance personnel arrived within minutes, but couldn’t, by law, enter the house until a law enforcement officer made sure the scene was safe.

And the nearest deputy was on the other end of the county.

“He gets there, and she’s still alive,” Bishop said. “She’s lain there for 20, 30 minutes, still alive. I don’t have a deputy to get there fast enough to allow the ambulance (personnel) to go in. And I didn’t have to call a deputy out – we were told she was deceased.

“We could have sent the deputy from (the other end of the county) and he’d be there in an hour. He got there as soon as he could.”

But what if, he posited, the incident had involved the accidental shooting of a child?

“If the fire department and ambulance don’t know it’s accidental. ...” Bishop said. “Can you imagine the repercussions of that? It’s sickening. That’s what’s keeping me awake at night.”

The ballot measure voters face May 21 would give his department some breathing room. The five-year, split-levy tax increase would provide his department with $4.5 million a year.

As an elected official, Bishop said he tries to stay out of the politics, but in these tight fiscal times, and as voters discuss their opinions on a tax increase, Bishop wonders – and worries – what will happen if it fails.

Josephine County

He doesn’t have to look far.

Josephine County voters rejected a similar ballot proposal last year that led to the release of inmates from jail and layoffs in numerous county departments.

Grants Pass lifetime local Mike Vorberg quit his job as a police officer and moved away because, he said, “Evil is winning here.”

Last week, a felon in Redwood allegedly broke into a home and stole a gun, fled and hid, forcing a nearby school to go on lockdown. He was captured – and instead of being jailed, even on an outstanding warrant he had in a drug delivery case – then cited and released. His release was most likely due to a miscommunication at the jail, said Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.

But the man is free, which worries residents.

Gilbertson said such stories go on and on:

There’s the story of the man who whose home was burglarized, so he installed a security system and purchased a handgun. When a burglar tried again, he held him at gunpoint and called 911.

No officers were on duty.

Oregon State Patrol was summoned, but the incident was taking place outside their jurisdiction – and furthermore, the burglar wasn’t threatening the man’s life.

Eventually, the burglar’s mother was called to retrieve him.

A failed levy

When Josephine County voters rejected a property tax levy for law enforcement last year, the juvenile department was slashed, meaning only 86 youth were detained – in rented beds in Jackson County – down from more than 230 youth the year before. Almost 90 deputies, prosecutors, juvenile department employees and staff were cut from the payroll.

Six deputies now patrol the entire county – serving 83,000 people – down from 28 last year. Three of those are contracted to patrol Cave Junction and outlying forest roads.

The sheriff was forced to cut the number of inmates held at the county jail from 150 to 99.

The number of cases the DA has prosecuted has been halved, with many other cases – shoplifting, possession of small amounts of drugs and other misdemeanors – going by the wayside.

The repercussions are easy to see.

Burglaries in Grants Pass are up 50 percent – and prosecutions are down 42 percent. Burglaries are up 45 percent in rural areas. Assaults? Up 31 percent. About 1,000 fewer misdemeanor and felony cases were prosecuted last year. DA Stephen Campbell has lost four of his nine attorneys.

“It’s exactly what’s going to happen here,” Bishop said. “And how do you report on that without scaring people?”

“We’re seeing increased crime,” said Grants Pass Public Safety Director Joe Henner. “Our officers are saying they’re having more hostile and violent encounters with suspects, who are challenging them and fighting.”

Grants Pass liquor store owner Jack Ingvaldson said there is “anarchy in the alleys” downtown.  

“I’m putting in gates to keep them out,” he said. “I’m a pretty compassionate guy. But at what point does one run out of patience?” 

In Curry County, there have already been instances where emergency personnel have arrived before law enforcement. Bar fights. Medical emergencies. Car wrecks. Bishop said his deputies work their hardest to be there to help.

Sometimes the arriving personnel can jump right in and help, but in other cases – say, anything involving a weapon or violent person – they are not going to place themselves in danger. And if no deputy is on duty, or if they’ll be delayed due to a cross-county drive, the situation can escalate.

Bishop anguishes over the safety of the county because he only has four deputies to patrol it – not enough to cover the 1,600 square miles 24/7, he said. And those four are often summoned back to the sheriff’s office to assist in the jail.

What has Bishop concerned isn’t just crime. It’s also “unattended” deaths, where someone finds the body of a person who has died, often an elderly or sick person whose death might not be suspicious, he said.

Or it could be someone who hanged themselves.

The body cannot be released to medical examiners by anyone but a deputy – and that means those who found the body might have to wait, in one emotional state or another, before a deputy can get there.

“It’s these unattended deaths we’re going to get hammered with when we can’t release the bodies,” Bishop said.

Needed revenue

Josephine County officials are again trying to get a tax levy passed this May. Their ballot measure asks voters to approve a three-year tax increase of $1.48 per $1,000 assessed valuation to pay for public safety services, a full 50 cents less than what officials asked for last year. Josephine County pays the lowest permanent tax rate in the state, at 58 cents – one penny less than Curry County.

If voters approve that measure, it will generated $9.1 million for the jail, juvenile department, district attorney, sheriff patrol, courts and animal shelter. That’s still down from the $12 million on which public safety operated on in past years, Gilbertson said.

“If it fails, we’re almost positive we’ll have to cut back jail beds again,” he said, “but everything’s up in the air. We don’t have a solid number (from county commissioners) so we can’t tell the public what kinds of services we can provide.”

If a similar levy in Curry County fails May 21, county officials say they will be forced to further slash departments, contract jail beds with Coos County and all but eliminate road patrols to reduce spending to a $2.1 million budget.

Neither Bishop or Gilbertson are sure what will happen to the safety of their communities if their respective levies fail.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Gilbertson said. “I don’t know what people think they can expect. We are doing the best we can with what we have, but there are limits.”