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A small town can’t afford cops at night. So it’s turning to cameras watched by citizen patrols.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/3/2019 Antonia Farzan
a car parked on the side of a road: The main drag in Cave Junction, Ore. The main drag in Cave Junction, Ore.

In rural Josephine County, Ore., basic government services can be hard to come by. Budget shortfalls are a constant in what was once a rich timber- and gold-mining region, and residents have repeatedly voted against increasing taxes to fill the ever-widening gap.

For people in Cave Junction, a community of nearly 2,000 people near the rainy, forested California border, that means no law enforcement officers patrol the streets at night. The city doesn’t have its own police force, and deputies from the understaffed Josephine County Sheriff’s Office only patrol the area during daytime hours on weekdays, according to the Oregonian. Placing a call to 911 at night can mean waiting 45 minutes or more for someone to show up, and the area has experienced robberies and thefts tied to the local legal marijuana-growing industry.

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So, last month, members of the Cave Junction City Council voted unanimously to try a new experiment in policing: Installing security cameras that will be monitored by a volunteer citizen patrol.

The private, resident-led group, CJ Patrol, already conducts regular nighttime patrols in the city. Rebecca Patton, Cave Junction’s city recorder, recently told Jefferson Public Radio that the volunteers can identify “hardcore criminals” just by looking at them.

“They can identify them by the way that they dress, because they have a certain apparel that they wear all the time, or the way they walk,” she told the station. “Sometimes they carry things all the time, it could be something as simple as a skateboard. They have learned how to identify these people very, very quickly, then they know how to respond.”

The volunteers haven’t received formal training or undergone background checks, Patton said. She told Jefferson Public Radio she might introduce “some sort of background check” before granting them access to security footage.

The proposal, which involves installing eight security cameras on streetlights along Cave Junction’s main commercial drag and granting CJ Patrol access to the live feeds, still requires final approval from county officials who will be providing the majority of the funding. But it has raised concerns about profiling and vigilantism.

“Civil rights violation incoming in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …," the Oregon Justice Resource Center wrote on Twitter.

Members of CJ Patrol insist they’re not vigilantes. “We don’t do domestic disputes, street brawls, drug enforcement, roust the homeless, traffic control, or involve ourselves in major crimes requiring the presence of law enforcement, although they will be reported,” the group’s website says. “What we are and seek to be is a strong deterrent against residential, business, and personal property crime.”

The volunteers’ stated goal is to thwart crime by being an additional set of eyes on the street, which can involve monitoring vacant homes to deter thieves and squatters, or standing watch when business owners lock up for the night. They also try to work out conflicts between property owners and the city’s homeless population. And they say they “attempt to offer assistance to anyone willing to turn away from life on the street.”

Though entries in patrol logs that CJ Patrol posted online last year tend to be mundane — one man was spotted carrying wood, another hitchhiking — there’s no question that budget cuts have lead to public safety concerns in Cave Junction and other parts of Josephine County. By 2013, after years of shortfalls, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office had only one deputy fielding calls in a county covering an area slightly smaller than Delaware, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, Grants Pass, Ore., a city roughly 30 miles from Cave Junction, saw burglaries increase by almost 70 percent and theft increase by nearly 80 percent in 2012.

Since then, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office has tried to hire additional deputies, marketing itself with a splashy music video set to a song by the band Shinedown. But complaints about menacing behavior and general anarchy have persisted. In a 2016 story titled, “Never-ending crime in Cave Junction?,” local TV news station KTVL described the city as “a town known for vandalism and break-ins, with little police presence.”

“Downtown and throughout the city crime appears to be escalating — armed car jacking, assault, multiple burglaries,” one member of CJ Patrol wrote in a local Facebook group in September. On one night, he added, he had come across “meth and heroin devotees” behind a gas station, an “angry tattoo dude” kicking trash cans and “stomping around aggressively,” and a man who said a driver had rammed a car into him twice — all on the same street.

On social media, locals frequently place the blame on “trimmigrants,” people who travel to Josephine County to work at marijuana grow sites, which number in the thousands. Others argue that the prevalence of illegal drugs like meth and the lack of mental health services are to blame. A perpetually contentious issue is whether the solution will require increasing taxes — or if a handful of committed citizens who have applied for concealed-carry permits and started watch groups can handle it on their own.

“Until we start paying a little bit more for our services, we’re going to get what we pay for,” Patton told Jefferson Public Radio.

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