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Crime on the rise

The numbers don't lie: Reported crime in Medford has shot up significantly the past six years.

According to data provided by Medford police, the amounts of all reported Type-1 crimes in 2012 — felony offenses that include homicides, robberies and assaults — have seen an increase in every category compared with 2006 numbers.

In 2006, for example, 3,190 thefts were reported. By 2012, thefts had risen to 3,885. Robberies climbed from 42 in 2006 to 70 in 2012. There were 1,039 assaults in 2006; 1,580 in 2012.

And so on.

Law enforcement officials attribute the shift to several factors, including the increasing use of illegal drugs, jail overcrowding, and a decrease in substance abuse treatment and mental health services. It's a trend they expect will continue if steps aren't taken.

"If you don't smack it when it starts happening, it will fester," Medford police Chief Tim George says.

Hoping to prevent that festering, police and prosecutors are cracking down on gang and drug activity, keeping a law enforcement presence in public schools, and changing the way prosecutors handle repeat offenders.

For the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement unit, or MADGE, 2012 was a record year in terms of amount of drugs seized. MADGE officers hauled in 101 pounds and 5 ounces of methamphetamine, almost a 300 percent jump when compared with 2011.

Police said the seizure numbers of meth and other drugs are growing because of the ease with which illegal substances can slip through U.S. southern borders and travel up Interstate 5.

"It is over the top," George said. "The importation of methamphetamine into this state, into this county, from our southern borders is outrageous."

There were 1,914 drug-related offenses reported in 2012, a 73 percent increase over the 1,105 offenses reported in 2006.

"Our drug arrest numbers are off the chart," George said. "We can't go to a shoplift without running into methamphetamine."

Lt. Brett Johnson of MADGE said meth and heroin remain the most troubling. Methamphetamine fuels violent crimes, he added.

"Meth will drive a lot of domestic violence," Johnson said. "Paranoia and the things that go along with that. You don't trust your wife or significant other, and all of a sudden it becomes a violent episode."

In 2006, one homicide was reported, along with 1,039 assaults. Those numbers rose to five homicides and 1,580 assaults for 2012.

Drug addiction is an expensive habit, one that leads to theft as addicts search for ways to pay. In 2006, Medford saw 493 burglary cases, 3,190 thefts, 42 robberies and 203 car thefts. In 2012, there were 502 burglaries, 3,885 thefts, 70 robberies and 247 car thefts.

"Most of us have a coffee habit," Johnson said. "But imagine if you have a $100 heroin habit and you're not gainfully employed. How do you pay for it?"

Johnson said materials sold or pawned for drug money seem to come in phases. At one time, it was scrap metal thefts. Recently, ammunition has been a hot commodity.

"They're very opportunistic," Johnson said. "Some of these people have a lot of ingenuity. If they used that for good, they'd probably be gainfully employed."

State and federal budget cuts in mental health services and drug and alcohol treatment programs have a direct effect on local programs and local demands on police.

Stacy Brubaker, division manager for Jackson County Mental Health, said cuts from Oregon's last legislative session resulted in the layoffs of 10 people and reduced service levels with several contracted providers.

"The direct impact of that for us were the layoffs last spring," she said. "Even with that said, we still have continued to provide services."

Reduced services translate to increased calls to police — Medford police responded to 664 mental health calls in 2012.

"Agencies have been under amazing stress. Their service demands have gone up dramatically," said Dee Anne Everson, United Way of Jackson County director.

The Jackson County Jail also has seen a jump in early releases because of overcrowding. Data provided by the Jackson County Sheriff's Department shows 1,310 early releases were reported in 2010. By 2012, they rose to 4,766, an increase of 264 percent. More than 1,030 early releases have been recorded for 2013 so far.

Those numbers have been spurred in part by the "frequent fliers" — inmates who come and go from the jail regularly, often for the same types of cases.

"We definitely see some of the people over and over again," said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert. "(On) the drug caseloads, you definitely get people who get three, four, five cases."

Heckert said that drug- and theft-related cases are the most common offenses for repeat offenders. Because they are among the lesser offenses that lead to jail time, those offenders more likely are to be released early.

"Most of the time on more serious offenses, our jail holds those people for the most part," she said.

Expected county budget cuts mean the District Attorney's Office will have one fewer deputy DA to prosecute cases, Heckert said. But she hopes to improve the prosecution of the frequent fliers by assigning all of one defendant's cases to the same deputy DA.

"That way, one person's more familiar with all the cases that person has. You can resolve all the cases at once that way," Heckert said. "(Now) someone might have two or three different cases in the office, and they're all being handled by different deputy DAs."

Budget cuts and the continual uptick in drug cases also may mean changes to how the DA prosecutes those crimes. That could mean the DA's office won't prosecute defendants who are caught with trace or residue amounts of illegal substances. The option still is under consideration.

"We have to cut back on something," she said.

Despite the seeming bleak trends, data suggest Medford crime rates also are improving in certain categories. Clearance rates, or crimes that lead to an arrest, reached 74 percent in 2012, above the national average.

"How I measure success is our clearance rate," George said.

Some categories of crimes, such as weapons violations, actually are crime reducers, George says, as it means weapons are out of the hands of convicted felons.

"Those are preventative cases," he said.

George added that Medford police plans to continue its suppression methods against gang presence and drugs. The department also will continue to utilize its six school resource officers for crime prevention among students.

"Those three things are going to be what we focus on in 2013," George said.

The Jackson County Jail also will add 62 beds to its facility, a project slated for completion later this year that is meant to reduce forced release rates. Whether it opens is a question of funding sources, but if it does, it would increase capacity to 292.

"We're looking at different sources of funding to be able to do that because of the additional bodies we'd have to hire," said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Andrea Carlson.

Training of police officers in crisis response and better equipping them to deal with the mentally ill, is ongoing. The program is an undertaking of Jackson County Mental Health.

Brubaker said the county also has plans for a crisis area in the new Health and Human Services building downtown. Called the living room, it will be dedicated to serving locals in need of mental health services.

"There certainly are those individuals who don't qualify for the hospital and oftentimes they just need a place to be and regroup," Brubaker said. "We really don't have a place like that right now."

George said the 90,000 calls for service officers responded to in 2012 — that's about 850 calls per cop per year — show Medford citizens are not afraid to report crimes in progress. He said the uptick in reported crimes also could be viewed as a positive, as it means police are responding to and investigating more crimes.

"It's a good thing a community reports it, and that we respond to and investigate it," George said.

Medford Police Officer Quint Oller holds a stolen laptop he recovered from a burglary last December in an alley off of North Riverside Avenue in Medford. - MT file photo