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Rural Patrols

Rural PatrolsDeputies make the most of the manpower they have available

It's a Saturday night and just three sheriff's deputies are patrolling Jackson County.

All 2,800 square miles.

Five or six deputies would be on the road most nights, but tonight the schedule is sparse. Several took time off to attend the funeral of a Douglas County deputy.

The three deputies available to work will respond to calls from Ruch to Prospect and everything in between.

How can you call for cover when you've only got two people working? asks deputy Jim Biddle.

Biddle's patrol beat is White City. Funded by a permanent tax rate, deputies patrol the unincorporated town 24 hours a day.

Cruising in a white Ford Crown Victoria marked with White City community action team in green lettering on the fender, Biddle says he feels a need to stick close to the sheriff's department substation on Avenue C. But the night's emergencies will take Biddle from White City to Phoenix, from Medford to Applegate.

If he gets in trouble, Biddle may have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for another deputy to come to his aid, he says. Oregon State Police or Eagle Point police can cover for him if he's in a real bind, but it's not something that happens often, he says.

I guess it depends on how bad I need the back-up. The Girl Scouts could back me up if I was really in trouble.

After about two hours on the road, Biddle says he has responded to four or five calls ' none emergencies.

The sheriff's department's calls for service have nearly doubled in the past 10 years while the county's population has increased by roughly 50,000 residents. Twenty-nine patrol deputies handled 11,757 calls in 1991. Thirty-three deputies will handle roughly 20,000 calls this year, which include non-priority cases such as theft and vandalism reports.

In 1980, if you came home and your lawnmower was gone, you call the sheriff's office and we show up, says sheriff's Lt. Dewey Patten.

In 2002, you get a phone call a couple of hours later.

Taking reports by phone is one factor that contributes to the sheriff's department's average response time of 34 minutes, according to a recent study. But it's not unusual for deputies to drive 45 minutes before they reach their destination, Biddle says.

Rural action teams ' a cooperative effort between the sheriff's department and Oregon State Police in the 1990s ' placed more deputies in remote areas of the county, such as Applegate, Evans Valley and Prospect. But budget cuts within both agencies effectively dissolved the patrol teams about two years ago, says sheriff's Capt. Ed Mayer.

The sheriff's department handles about eight to 10 calls each day in the county's remote communities, Mayer says. Yet if more deputies were accessible in rural areas, more crimes would be reported, he says. Rural residents just don't bother to report stolen or vandalized property when all they get is a phone call the next day, he adds.

Biddle returns calls over his car's cell phone when he isn't responding to more pressing calls or pulling over errant White City drivers.

Flipping a U-turn on Avenue G, Biddle slides his patrol car in behind a dark blue Hyundai sedan with purplish tinting flaking from the windows. What was wrong?

The person driving the car, Biddle says.

Jeffrey Coffman is the long-haired man behind the wheel. Under a baseball cap with sunglasses perched on the bill, his face is haggard.

As the car pulls over, Coffman and the plump, curly-haired woman in the passenger seat whip their heads around, scanning the back. A baby ' about 6 months old, Biddle thinks ' is buckled into a car seat. But the seat itself isn't strapped down, just wedged in along with other cargo.

A cigarette in hand, Coffman blows smoke out the window as Biddle approaches the car.

He said, 'As soon as you run my ID, you'll be taking me to jail,' Biddle says.

Coffman hands over an Oregon identification card. His driver license is suspended. But instead of arresting Coffman and ordering his car towed, Biddle writes him a ticket and leaves him to get back to his Central Point home without driving.

I could have taken him to jail, but that would have taken me off the road, Biddle says, adding that the jail doesn't thank police officers for bringing in new prisoners on misdemeanor crimes. They don't have the room. Plus, a trip to the jail would have cost him at least an hour's time, Biddle says.

Today, that's a luxury he just doesn't have.

Following up on a case in downtown Medford, Biddle hears emergency tones over the radio. A man with a gun is walking around Coleman Creek Estates in Phoenix. Two deputies already have arrived, but they need back-up.

Speeding down South Pacific Highway from West Eighth Street to Phoenix takes about five minutes. When Biddle arrives, deputies have handcuffed a man roughly matching the suspect's description; the man is leaning up against a concrete wall outside a nearby 7-Eleven.

But the dark-complected man wearing a white T-shirt doesn't match the dispatcher's suspect description ' a Hispanic man wearing a button-up white shirt with a white tank-top underneath. Biddle heads off to the trailer park to continue the search.

So if they've got the wrong guy, we'll be the solo unit with the right guy, Biddle says.

Standing outside his double-wide mobile home, Robert Ethridge tells Biddle that he could point out the gun-toting guy. He climbs in the patrol car's back seat for a quick ride to the 7-Eleven.

Well, I'm glad you guys come over, Ethridge says. With them cutting your guys' funding, it makes me mad.

Ethridge leans out the back seat window of the patrol car and peers at the handcuffed man standing outside the convenience store. It's not the same guy who was strolling through the park with a handgun stuffed into the back pocket of his jeans earlier that night, Ethridge says.

Biddle is called back to the park. Deputies and two other officers from Phoenix and Talent police departments turned up a Hispanic man who matches the suspect's description. Clothed in a white button-up shirt and white tank-top, the man ' who appears to be in his 20s ' had been walking through the park with a gun, says Dave Kidgell, the park manager.

I'm sick and tired of these idiots being in here, Kidgell says.

The Hispanic man empties his pockets onto the hood of a patrol car. The car's spotlight illuminates a wallet and a cell phone. He doesn't have a gun, he tells police.

A 15-minute search of the shrubs and rose bushes lining the park's meandering maze of driveways yields nothing. It must have been the Hispanic man's cell phone sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans that the park's residents, including Raymond Kenton, thought they saw.

The wild-goose chase took Biddle and two other deputies off the road for about an hour and 30 minutes. But Kenton and his neighbors are just pleased their call for help was answered.

I'm just glad you guys showed up, Kenton said.

Sheriff's office has a long history of short patrols JILL BRISKEY

Jackson County Sheriff Bob Kennedy had hoped the Nov. 5 ballot would have included one more item ' an &

36;8.7 million tax levy to fund rural patrols.

But the proposal to boost the under-staffed sheriff's department by taxing those in unincorporated areas never left the drawing board. County commissioners had too many reservations.

I wasn't comfortable with it, said Commissioner Jack Walker. Only people living outside the incorporated areas would pay the cost. Virtually everybody should be paying (for increased services).

The three board members began seriously voicing their concerns in July, postponing a series of public hearings. August, the proposal was scrapped.

Without a levy, Kennedy said the sheriff's department stands to lose what little patrol service it provides.

The department employs 29 deputies, and cannot afford to post more than three deputies at a time.

For the most part, there's no requirement that the county send out patrols, Kennedy said. It's a matter of priority.

State law requires counties to run jails and provide search and rescue. No such law mandates patrol services.

Because it's a discretionary service, the county budget committee is free to slash funding and eliminate everything but the basics ' serving warrants, keeping the peace and investigating reports of abuse ' to balance the budget.

Without deputies patrolling the county, the number of drunk driving arrests will most likely fall, while burglary and vandalism reports will climb, sheriff's officials had speculated.

At &

36;8.7 million, patrol services represent the county's largest discretionary item.

The sheriff's department was banking on a tax levy to generate funding and increase staffing. Kennedy said the department won't be able to try again until 2004.

Under state election guidelines, entities like the sheriff's department must seek a tax levy during even-numbered election years.

If a future levy did pass, funds wouldn't be available until 2005, Kennedy said. He worries that the funding won't come in time to avoid cuts.

The county's revenue is expected to increase 5.6 percent in the next fiscal year, but expenses are expected to jump 8.3 percent.

Decreasing O&C funds (compensation for lost timber tax revenues), skyrocketing costs of public retirement plans and increasing costs of library and juvenile services are to blame for the widening gap, according to county officials.

Anticipating the need for a levy, the Patrol Advisory Committee was formed in November 2001 to research and draw up a proposal for the Nov. 5, 2002, general election.

The 12-member group ' which included residents, county officials and local law enforcement personnel ' agreed the levy should be &

36;2.30 per &

36;1,000 and that only residents living in unincorporated areas would vote and pay for it.

A Salem research firm polled 500 rural residents and found 60 percent wanted more patrols and slightly more than 50 percent were willing to pay for it with a tax levy.

Under the proposal, the levy would have paid for 15 new deputies, two sergeants and two clerks. It also would have taken sheriff patrols, search and rescue and DARE out of the county's general fund, freeing up &

36;6.1 million for other county departments.

But commissioners were concerned city-dwellers would receive services that the rural community was paying for.

Walker also was upset because nobody had addressed where the &

36;6.1 million would go.

We had nobody telling the voters and general public where this &

36;6.1 million would be spent, Walker said. No one's explained that.

Frankly, we can't hold future budget committee meetings (now). We can't tell them what to do with the money, Kennedy responded. That's not up to us.

Kennedy is retiring this year. Candidate Mike Winters or sheriff's Capt. Ed Mayer will inherit the problem.

Both Winters and Mayer support a property tax measure that would separately and permanently fund patrols.

If elected, Winters vows to streamline the department to function at maximum efficiency and then approach voters with a plan that he hasn't formulated yet.

Mayer proposes taxing the sheriff's department services that benefit all residents in Jackson County, such as the jail, civil division and search and rescue. If the entire population was taxed, it would spread the costs, making them more affordable, he said.

I think we need some new, creative ideas, said Walker, who supports creating a taxing district for police services similar to local fire districts.

The sheriff's department hasn't had much success with previous tax levies. In 1997, a levy failed because less than 50 percent of the voters cast their ballots. A funding levy in the 1980s failed as well.

Reach reporter Jill Briskey at 776-4485, or e-mail

Jackson County sheriff?s deputy Jim Biddle walks back to his patrol car after stopping a man driving without a license. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven