Last August, a woman in Josephine County called 911 and pleaded with dispatchers to send police — “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 woman had good reason to be afraid of this man, as she told the dispatcher on the other side of the phone, this same abusive ex had put her in the hospital just a few weeks before. But the dispatcher has no one to send. Because the local sheriff’s department recently lost millions in federal funds, it laid off 23 of its 29 deputies and limited their availability to eight hours on Mondays through Fridays. The woman’s call to 911 took place on a Saturday.
With no deputies available, the 911 dispatcher transferred the woman to the state police — but they would not come rescue the woman either. In the words of the state police dispatcher, “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?”
Eventually, the ex-boyfriend, a man named Michael Bellah, pried open the woman’s front door. Choked her. And raped her. After he was caught, he plead guilty to kidnapping, assault, and sex abuse.
This woman’s situation was not a tragic outlier — while Sheriff Gil Gilberson declined to comment on this specific case, he noted to Oregon Public Radio “[t]here isn’t a day go by that we don’t have another victim” due to a law enforcement deficit caused by a budget cuts that went into effect last May.
The Josephine County’s Sheriff’s Office budget was cut after the the expiration of a multi-million dollar annual federal aid payment to timber-dependent counties, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, originally passed in 2000. The federal government previously shared timber sale revenues from public lands with rural counties to offset the lack of property taxes from those lands, but as logging was reduced by 90 percent in federal lands since 1989, the aid program replaced that revenue source.
Without money from the program, the county was forced to lay off most of its deputies and close its entire major crimes division. Two of the remaining six deputies are limited to patrolling federal forest lands and a local river because of how their positions are funded.
After the cuts, Gilberson released a press statement suggesting victims of domestic violence “consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.” The Grant Pass State Police Office usually has just two officers working per shift, but has become the only resource for local law enforcement on weekends. They’ve received about three times as many calls in as in the past.
But despite these dire circumstances, yesterday Josephine County voted 51 to 49 percent against a public safety levy for more law enforcement. The levy would have raised county property taxes from 59 cents per $1,000 of property value, the lowest in Oregon, to $1.48 for the next three years. It rejected a similar property tax levy increasing the rate to $1.99 per $1,000 shortly before the initial cuts 57 to 43 percent.
While clearly, the situation in Josephine County is an extreme example of a community failing to live up to public safety needs of its residents, the community is not alone in struggling to recover from revenue lost with the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. Nationwide more than 700 counties in 41 states benefited from the program, including 33 of the 36 counties in Oregon.