The law in their own hands in Oregon timber country

An Oregon sheriff lost funding and citizens stepped in

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photoAn old police car is permanently parked on the highway through O'Brien, Ore., where cuts to the sheriff's office have prompted some local residents to mount armed patrols to prevent crime.

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photoPhotos by Jeff Barnard/Associated Press Sam Nichols, left, and Glenn Woodbury stand in front of Woodbury's pickup in O'Brien, Ore. The two men are part of a newly-formed neighborhood watch that does armed patrols around the rural area to deter crime.

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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."

Since the patrols started, group members have reported a wildfire being set and someone trying to break into an SUV. The Grants Pass Daily Courier police log shows five thefts or burglaries in O'Brien from January through July, but none since August.

"These people know they no longer own the night," CAC Patrol member Glenn Woodbury said of potential criminals. "They can't back a pickup up to somebody's home when you've got patrols watching."

For her part, Dickson says her group has located stolen property, including several cars, and even helped deputies arrest a man on drug charges.

Dickson says there isn't enough space in the jail and deputies don't pursue property crimes as they should, so criminals "know they aren't going to get punished. Nobody gets arrested. Nobody gets charged."

Josephine County, population about 83,000, recently lost $12 million in federal timber county subsidies. The jail, sheriff's patrols, prosecutors, probation officers and juvenile programs have all been drastically cut. The lockup has room for 69 inmates -- only the worst offenders.

But neither Nichols nor Dickson thinks the sheriff would do a better job with more resources.

They both voted no on a tax proposal to make up the $12 million loss and say they would do so again.

Their independent streak is fairly common in the area just north of the California border, which was settled during the gold rush of the 1850s and has been proudly self-reliant ever since with loggers, hippie communes and survivalists maintaining the reputation.

At the O'Brien crossroads, a flashing yellow light and a '50s-era police car, parked permanently on the shoulder, slow what passes for traffic in front of the general store, post office, gas station, restaurant, and RV park.

Nichols says he decided to start the patrols after someone stole a travel trailer from his property over the summer. He called a community meeting in August, where somebody recognized a photo of his trailer and knew where it had been stashed.

Gilbertson, however, declined to try to retrieve it. "I didn't have the resources to deal with it at that time," he said. "Pretty much, what we're doing now is person-to-person crime."

In response, members of the CAC Patrol slap magnetic gold stars and flashing amber lights on their vehicles to keep watch over the community. Many carry pistols and plastic ties for handcuffs.

"If we stand shoulder to shoulder, they don't have a chance," Nichols said. "And that's what we're doing."