RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Many communities around the country have seen deep cuts to law enforcement budgets. In rural Southern Oregon, that has meant a growing number of armed citizen groups stepping in to fill the void.
From Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon, Liam Moriarty reports.
LIAM MORIARTY, BYLINE: It's after 10 PM as Sam Nichols slowly cruises through the tiny town of O'Brien, shining super-bright spotlights into the shadows.
SAM NICHOLS: We're just checking this commercial building here, just to make sure there's no one hiding around it or anything.
MORIARTY: Nichols' king cab pickup has a yellow flasher on top and signs on the doors identifying it as a Citizens Against Crime patrol. Riding with Nichols is fellow volunteer, Alan Cress.
ALAN CRESS: We're not trying to take the place of law enforcement. In fact, we have a great deal of respect for what law enforcement does. We recognize the limited resources they have, and we're just trying to keep a presence out there.
MORIARTY: You might think out in the country, there's not much crime to speak of. But high unemployment, the growing use of meth and other drugs, plus the sudden lack of law enforcement has fueled an explosion of burglaries and vehicle thefts and other property crimes.
For decades, revenue from timber sales on the federal land that makes up 70 percent of Josephine County kept property taxes low and county government functioning. As logging dramatically declined, those payments dried up. After two failed property tax levies, the Sheriff's Department's budget was cut by more than half. Two-thirds of the staff was laid off. There was a single deputy left to patrol the entire county.
KEN SELIG: What we're going to do tonight is basically practice some room entries...
MORIARTY: Ken Selig stands before a classroom whiteboard in the small town of Merlin. Selig was a 33-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department. Faced with being laid off, he retired. Today, he's preparing members of the North Valley Community Watch Responder Team for a training exercise. They're practicing how to search a building where an intruder may be hiding.
SELIG: Neighborhood Watch, police are on their way. Show us your hands.
MORIARTY: Unloaded guns drawn, team members cautiously maneuver down the hallway. Selig says the cutbacks left a vacuum. Soon, he and other concerned neighbors formed the Community Watch.
SELIG: So we began to train. And I used the same lesson plans, the same things that when I taught at the academy.
MORIARTY: Then the group began taking those lessons into the community, something that made a difference to local resident Jeff Bailey. A while back, Bailey noticed a tarp hiding something way back on a neighbor's forested land.
JEFF BAILEY: We didn't know if it was someone living up there, maybe somebody cooking drugs.
MORIARTY: The Sheriff's Department was contacted, but didn't respond, so residents called the Community Watch Responder Team. Members confronted the squatters, advised them they were trespassing, and they left. Bailey says that after a string of break-ins and car thefts in the area, he appreciates that presence.
BAILEY: It's solving the problem, number one. And it's also kind of sending a message that people are watching and people are willing to do something about crime in the area.
MORIARTY: There are now at least four communities in the county with citizen safety groups. County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson says he supports neighborhood watches. But he worries when he recalls a community meeting he attended.
GIL GILBERTSON: And the gentleman sitting right next to me kept repeating: We're not going to hire any more of you guys. We're not going to pay for you, because we can do this for ourselves. Well, that really concerns me. That does concern me.
MORIARTY: Next month, Josephine County voters will have another chance to approve a public safety levy. But members of the citizen group say they've found a new sense of self-reliance. And even if the Sheriff's Department returns to full funding, they say they'll continue protecting their communities.
For NPR News, I'm Liam Moriarty, in Josephine County, Oregon.