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Medford: Most dangerous city in Oregon?

It's just after 2 p.m. on a chilly Thursday afternoon when Medford police Officer Jason Wileman guides his blue and white Dodge Charger patrol car up Hillcrest Road, the screen of his in-car laptop computer already filling with pending calls for service. Right now, though, Wileman's eyes are focused on a young man with a scruffy beard, who is smoking a cigarette as he leans against a car parked awkwardly across the street from a palatial hillside home.

There've been a number of high-profile burglaries in the area, and something about the man raises Wileman's suspicions. He runs the car's license plate through one of the numerous state databases fed into his computer, but it comes up clean, so Wileman moves on.

This part of east Medford isn't what most residents would picture when they think of high-crime neighborhoods, but it's attracting an unseemly cast of characters that officers are being called to deal with on an all-too-regular basis. "Older people buy these houses, and then become snowbirds," Wileman says. "They rent them out (without screening the tenants), and then come back all surprised the tenants are doing drugs."

Those drugs are fueling a marked wave of crime that's led some to dub Medford "the most dangerous city in Oregon," a title the Medford Police Department says is debatable.

'Damned lies and statistics'

Like almost all other law enforcement agencies in the country, the Medford Police Department submits annual numbers of person and property crimes to the FBI as part of that agency's Uniform Crime Reporting program. Gena Criswell, the department's records supervisor, says reports are fed regularly to Oregon State Police Law Enforcement Data Systems, or LEDS, which then submits the data to the FBI.

Every fall, the federal agency releases the previous year's statistics as part of its Crime in the United States report.

In October, the real estate website Movoto published an article listing the "most dangerous cities in Oregon," based on cities' per-capita crime rates from the 2012 report. Medford made the top of its list.  "Like many cities that experience rapid growth," the article reads, "this Jackson County city has also had a recent increase in crime — so much so that in 2012, it had the most crimes per 100,000 people out of anywhere in our analysis."

Medford police Chief Tim George says that though the city is experiencing a dramatic increase in certain crimes, he's skeptical of the label, to say the least.

"You know the saying," George says. "'Damned lies and statistics.'"

George and Criswell point to significant discrepancies in how other departments of similar size report their aggravated assaults. The issue, George says, lies in what kinds of crimes are being counted as aggravated assaults for Uniform Crime Reporting purposes. Traditionally, many departments have counted only first, second- and third-degree assaults, but Criswell says there are two other crimes that also can be counted as aggravated assault: Menacing with a dangerous weapon and strangulation, if committed under certain circumstances, such as in front of a child.

George says he suspects too many departments are counting only the traditional felony assaults, and not including menacing or strangulation cases.

In 2013, for example, Bend, with a population of just over 79,000 people, reported 138 aggravated assaults. Medford, with a population of just under 77,000 people, reported 346.

"If you took out the menacing and the strangulation (cases), you'd be dropping 80-100 reports," George says. "If you drop 80-100 aggravated assaults, we drop off the list (of most dangerous cities)."

A flood of drugs

What George doesn't dispute is a sharp rise in brazen person and property crimes, fueled by a never-ending wave of narcotics.

The 2015 drug threat assessment for Oregon, published by the state's federally funded High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, predicted heroin to become the main drug threat in the state over the next year.

But George says that while his officers are seeing an upswing in opiate use and seizures on the streets — the department is starting to issue officers Naloxone to treat overdoses — methamphetamine still drives the majority of the crime.

"We're being flooded with meth," he says. "We can't go to a call for service without finding methamphetamine."

A March 2014 report by the California Department of Justice on transnational criminal organizations detailed how a strengthened alliance between the Sinaloa cartel — one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world — and the California-based Sureño gang nation has helped fuel the steady flow of Mexican heroin and methamphetamine into Southern Oregon. According to the report, the expansion of Sureño gang territory into neighboring states has helped the cartel gain a foothold in Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.

While most of the drugs are being brought up the Interstate 5 corridor from the Southwest, at least some meth is still being cooked locally, despite statewide restrictions on sales of pseudoephedrine, a key precursor chemical. Detectives from the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement team uncovered an alleged active lab just two weeks ago when they served a search warrant Nov. 19 at 1118 S. Holly St. The home's resident, 54-year-old Stephen Lyon, has since been charged with both manufacture and possession. Investigators say it was the first lab they'd encountered locally in several years.

"We're knocking on eight (drug arrests) a day," George says.

Increasing violence

With the increased supply of drugs comes an increased social instability that often has the potential to turn deadly.

"There's an increasing violence in the people we're dealing with," Wileman says. "Pretty much everybody is carrying a knife."

Officers are encountering more guns, too — mostly stolen in burglaries, although one gun was recently recovered that had been stolen out of Mississippi.

George attributed part of the violence to the tremendous cash incentives behind the marijuana business in Southern Oregon, citing a Nov. 23 assault in Union Park police say was the result of a pot deal gone bad.

In another recent incident, three men armed with a rifle forced their way into a home on South Peach Street and menaced the homeowner at gunpoint before making off with a safe filled with marijuana and jewelry.

"I'm as anti-pot as anybody, but anyway you slice it, the drug business is a business," George says, adding that dealers are going to do whatever they feel necessary to protect their profits.

Wileman says that most of what police call "drug rips" — robberies of drug dealers or that occur during drug deals — don't get reported when they happen, since the victims in the cases are afraid of getting arrested themselves. "I don't hear about them until years later," he says.

No call too small

While incidents like this are becoming more common, George says, their number in relation to other cities may always seem higher just because the department is taking a report on every call it gets.

"No question MPD is a very busy place based on our total numbers," he says. "We are taking a report on all crimes that occur — in person, on the phone or online."

George says that while Medford's numbers seem high, that's actually a good thing — especially when compared with Josephine County. "They're not taking many reports, and it may look like crime has dropped there," he says. "It will always drop when nobody takes a report."

While the number of crimes reported in Medford may seem alarming, he points to the department's case-clearance rate, which was just under 43 percent for 2014 as of October. Most departments, George says, are hovering closer to 20 percent.

"Our policy is always 'no call too small,'" he says.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

A cleanup team contracted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality examines the contents of an alleged meth lab discovered Nov. 19 at a home on South Holly Street in Medford. Meth and other drugs are fueling the increase in crime locally, Medford police say. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Medford police Officer Robert Johnson checks his computer in his patrol car at the start of his shift on a recent Saturday. Medford's policy of 'no call is too small' means greater reporting of crimes here than in other cities, local police say. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch