No police in rural Oregon? Call the fire department

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SELMA, Ore. — Things have gotten so lawless in southern Oregon, where there's little money available for law enforcement, that people are now calling the fire department to get help even if their problem is crime.

Dennis Hoke, chief of the Illinois Valley fire department, said he heard a call on Thursday for medical aid, the Grants Pass Daily Courier reported.

What he and his medics found when they arrived at the house was a man who'd been attacking a caregiver. The man was wearing pajama bottoms and throwing rocks through windows. The female caregiver was barricaded in the house.

Hoke said the man threated his driver: "'If you get out of this ambulance, I will kill you.' It just went south from there."

The chief had a weapon.

"I had to get my concealed weapon out and contemplate, `What am I going to do?' We should never be put in that position. I didn't know if he had a gun. If we had known an assault was in progress, we never would have responded without backup."

The man took off, waving his arms and yelling.

He was arrested about 30 minutes later walking along the Redwood Highway.

One of the officers who found him, Sgt. Ray Webb, is the remaining patrol deputy out of 27, a force that has shrunk because the federal government no longer subsidizes basic government functions in timber dependent counties such as Josephine County. Voters also have rejected higher taxes.

The other officers were Deputy Joel Heller, who's under contract to the city of Cave Junction, which pays his salary, and a civil deputy whose entire time is taken serving the legal paperwork such as evictions and summonses required of the sheriff's office.

Two levies to bolster the county's law enforcement services have failed in the past two years. A third is on the May ballot, dedicated to jail operations. County commissioners have promised more money for patrolling deputies if the levy passes.

Hoke says people have in the meantime figured out one alternative to bring help.

"If there's a burglary in progress they call it in as a structure fire. Why? The fire department is going to show up with lights and sirens," said Hoke. "People are misrepresenting calls, absolutely."

The enraged man was identified by authorities as Justin Lawrence Bennett, 26. He was booked on charges of robbery, assault, criminal mischief and probation violation.