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Crime is primary citizen worry in region

When it comes to the biggest issues on the minds of Southern Oregon residents, crime holds the No. 1 place — even over unemployment — according to a new survey.

Roughly 47 percent of Southern Oregonians who say their communities will be worse in the future say so because of crime, gangs or reduced law enforcement. Comparatively, 44 percent say jobs, the economy or poverty are the biggest issues here.

Those numbers come from the Oregon Values and Beliefs Project, which asked roughly 4,000 Oregonians — both voters and nonvoters — how they perceive the state now and in the future.

Medford Police Chief Tim George said for him, there's no question why crime is paramount over the limping economy in Southern Oregon.

"They are concerned with the type of crime, the increasing crime and gangs moving into the area," George said.

Crime statistics appear to support the survey findings.

Jackson County stands out within Southern Oregon, reporting just more than 28,000 crimes in 2012. Comparatively, Clackamas County has about 100,000 more residents and 5,000 fewer reported crimes.

More specifically, violent crime is an issue. Medford — with a population of 76,000 — logged 425 violent crimes in 2012. Eugene has more than double the population, but had just five more violent crimes last year, with 430.

George said the carloads of marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin that rumble along Interstate 5 every day feed the violence and property crime in Southern Oregon.

But he added that those numbers don't begin to tell the whole story. Crime stats often can be misleading because they only tell the story of the offenses officers encounter. It's difficult to detail the crime officers do not see.

"Crime stats come from the departments that report it," he said. "You want crime stats to go down, lay off your sheriff's deputies."

Unfettered criminals are a well-documented problem in Josephine County.

In the rural county, federal timber payments have evaporated and tax revenue is too low to support law enforcement. That translates to officer cutbacks, dormant jail beds and a revolving door for criminals who do manage to be caught.

"I think Josephine County is a little different," said Simon Hare, a county commissioner there. "Boards of the past didn't adequately plan for a time when we would no longer receive robust federal payments."

The lack of solid financial footing in Josephine County may be opening the gateway for more drugs in the wider region.

As the sheriff's department has cut back staff, troopers from the Oregon State Police are increasingly being pulled off interstate highways to handle 911 calls in Josephine County.

That translates to more chances for drug traffickers to slip through.

There isn't a clear way to plug those holes in the hardest hit Southern Oregon counties.

In May, Curry and Josephine counties rejected tax levies that would have helped fund struggling law enforcement.

The difficulty comes in convincing rural residents to support more taxes for law enforcement when they may be largely removed from the need for more officers. The sparse population in rural parts of the county means crime is a sporadic, and less prominent concern, for those residents.

"Not all counties are created equal," Hare explained. "Jackson County can handle crime because taxable assets are about five times higher. We can't have all of the burden on taxpayers; I don't think they can support that."

Southern Oregonians who took the Values and Beliefs Survey were split on the issue of funding.

Fifty-three percent said they'd be at least somewhat willing to pay more in taxes or take money from other services to pay for police.

But just where that money comes from matters, said Hare.

"People may be willing to take other tax dollars to help fund public safety, but they may only approve it as long as it doesn't impact them," he said.

Hare suspects Josephine County residents are coming around to the idea of paying more for law enforcement, but it's a slow and "painful" process.

"My understanding is that there will be a citizen-driven initiative in May, which we've never had before," he said.

Beyond the actual crimes, Hare said, his constituents are concerned about their futures as law enforcement dwindles. The threat of state intervention worries people there because it could cost them more in taxes and threaten their independent nature. And a tarnished public image of the county could hurt future development, Hare said.

"I think it's about the reputation that Josephine County is developing more than a specific impact it's had," Hare said. "It doesn't take very long for you to develop a reputation and people may avoid visiting or relocating here."

George describes Oregon as being at a "crossroads" when it comes to crime.

"We have a worse future in crime rates if we don't do something," the police chief said. "I'd consider myself a moderate, but conservative on public safety. And I think that's how many people here feel."

He would like to see tougher sentences for criminals and a halt to the state's move toward legalizing marijuana.

But not everyone sees Southern Oregon's future as quite so grim.

Izzy Brann has lived in Ashland for 20 years and knows crime better than most Southern Oregonians ever will.

In the late 90s, eight of her adopted children — many of them living with mental or physical special needs — were raped by a neighboring teenager. Her family spent the next decade dealing with the trauma anew each time the case would come up in court.

On top of that, she was assaulted earlier this year. Her assailant sneaked up on her while she was strolling on an evening walk through her neighborhood and shoved her down.

"When I hit the ground, I heard him laughing," Brann said.

Yet, her children's rapes and the attack that fractured her cheekbone did little to break her positive view of her hometown.

"I think I try to be more watchful and intuitive about individual people," Brann said, "but I can't live my life in fear."

Her view fits with the 67 percent of Southern Oregonians who said they believe their community will stay about the same or improve in the next 10 years.

"I just don't sense there is this malevolence out there," she said. "I don't sense that it's affecting other people that I know and love."

A Josephine County officer stands by his patrol car near Robertson Bridge over the Rogue River. The county’s lack of law enforcement has been cited as a reason for people’s fears about crime. - Photo courtesy Josephine County