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Public safety for all, or just for some?

Should a man who was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for racially motivated second- and third-degree assault now be in charge of public safety patrols in a Rogue Valley town, with the full knowledge of the city government and the use of city property for their meetings?

That’s what’s happening in Gold Hill right now, and it affects everyone in Southern Oregon.

Gold Hill disbanded its police force more than a decade ago. In November, it renewed its contract for patrols by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, at a cost of at least $170,000 per year. Interim City Manager Rob Lowe told the Mail Tribune at the time that “the city was basically pretty satisfied with the level of support we’ve gotten” and “the good news is things are relatively quiet around here.”

But in January, a resident named Andrew Patterson announced formation of a Gold Hill Neighborhood Watch Program. Recently removed due to public pressure, the program described on the official City of Gold Hill website encouraged residents “to spot strangers who are acting suspicious or situations that “just don’t look ‘right.’ ”

A look at Patterson’s past and current activities suggests just who those “strangers” who “don’t look right” might be, and what discrimination or persecution they might face.

Patterson once served overseas in the military, but he and another soldier were sent home after a fire in their barracks caused by igniting lighter fluid that had been poured in the shape of a cross.

On Aug. 14, 2003, the Mail Tribune reported that Patterson was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for assaults in Medford on “homeless men and an East Indian motel owner in a series of January attacks that police labeled hate crimes.” One man’s skull was fractured as Patterson and a friend called him “a disgrace to the white race.” The motel owner was targeted because Patterson and two friends “mistook (him) for an Arab, police said.”

Soon after Patterson was released from prison in 2009, he told the Mail Tribune that he was now the statewide leader of the neo-Nazi group that calls itself the National Socialist Movement (the same name Hitler used for his political movement in Germany).

During the first four months of this year, while Patterson was setting up the Gold Hill Neighborhood Watch, his Facebook page has been filled with constant attacks on people of color, lesbians and immigrants.

One post had a headline that said “Let’s Discuss What Islam Offers” and then listed pedophilia, rape, slavery, and other alleged attributes of that religion (March 7). Another post proclaimed that “It’s a proven fact that criminals commit less crime when they’ve been shot” (Feb. 5). Another threatened gun violence against a leader of Congress (Feb. 16). Yet another urged “training for Militias due to expected Civil Unrest” (March 3).

Despite being made aware of Patterson’s past and current activities, the city of Gold Hill’s official website urged residents to join Patterson’s group and provided a form for them to sign up. The city also has provided meeting space for the group in City Hall, and Patterson has been given time at council meetings to report on his group’s activities.

Residents have been asking city officials for action on this situation since February. More than 30 Gold Hill residents came to the April 15 City Council meeting to protest, but Mayor Peter Newport reaffirmed his support for Patterson.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office says that while they provide initial training, they don’t provide background checks or oversight.

All this leads to many questions.

Do Gold Hill city officials and the Jackson County Sheriff and believe that public safety for all residents of the Rogue Valley is well served by someone with this record being in charge of patrols that identify people who “don’t look right”?

Will taxpayers have to foot the bill if the city and county are found liable for discriminatory or violent actions these patrols may take?

Should patrolling in Jackson County and its cities be in the hands of vigilantes with a racist and homophobic record, or be conducted by law enforcement personnel who have been through anti-bias training and can be held accountable for their professional performance?

It’s time for city and county officials to address these questions and ensure that no Rogue Valley resident has to fear for their safety or well being because of who they are.

Jessie Kinney is a Gold Hill resident, field organizer at Rogue Action Center, and Marine Corps veteran. The Rev. Laura Lee Kent is pastor of the Medford Congregational United Church of Christ.