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Drug War Priorities

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GIL GILBERTSON
AP
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This awful story has been making the rounds the last few days.

A woman was choked and raped following a 911 call to police in which the dispatcher told her to ask her attacker to "go away".

The incident, which occured late last August but was only widely reported last week, took place in Josephine County, Oregon, when a woman's ex-boyfriend tried to break into her home.

Instead of sending an officer to the scene, the police dispatcher advised, “I don’t have anybody to send out there. You know, obviously, if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away? Do you know if he’s intoxicated or anything?”

The man eventually forced entry to the house, wherein he proceeded to "brutally rape" the woman before fleeing. After the attack, police went in search for 29-year-old Michael Bellah, and arrested him.

The Sheriff's Department blamed the lack of resources due to recent public funding cuts. “There isn’t a day go by that we don’t have another victim,” said Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson. In Josephine County, 80 percent of sheriff’s deputies lost their jobs when the cuts were made. The few that remain cannot respond to emergency calls during the evening or on weekends . . .

After the government budget cuts, which occurred before the rape incident, Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said in a press release that victims of domestic violence should "consider relocating to an area with adequate police services."

Heartbreaking. I don't know the fiscal situation in Josephine County, so I don't have an informed opinion on whether those cuts were necessary, or whether or not they really were severe enough to put its citizens at risk. But I did do a couple quick searches, and I found a few stories that make me question Sheriff Gilbertson's narrative.

-- From a November 15, 2012 article in the Mail Tribune: "A harvest season crackdown on Josephine County medical marijuana growers suspected of having significantly more of the drug than allowed under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program led to the seizure of 930 pounds of bud and criminal charges for 26 people . . . "

-- Here's a February, 2013 story from KDRV TV: "Working with the Rogue Area Drugs Enforcement team in Grants Pass, the agencies tracked the drugs to a home on Panther Gulch Road near Williams. Police seized 161 pounds of marijuana, along with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and mushrooms."

-- Here's a January 2013 story from KTVL: "Detectives in Josephine County took two drug dealers and their goods off the streets this week.The Rogue Area Drug Enforcement Team used a search warrant to go into a home in Wolf Creek, where they found 15 pounds of marijuana, four ounces of heroin and some methamphetamines."

Here's a November 2012 press release from the Oregon State Police:

Investigations conducted during the last 30 days by the interagency Rogue Area Drug Enforcement (RADE) team shows the team was inundated with a variety of cases, the majority involving marijuana. Due to the nature of the investigations and the cultural closeness of those involved in the unlawful manufacture and distribution of marijuana in Josephine County, RADE is now able to provide some information for these case investigations including the most recent investigation that led to three arrests Tuesday and the seizure of over 250 pounds of marijuana.

Oregon State Police (OSP) Sergeant Jim Johnson said RADE opened seventeen cases during this time for which 26 people were either arrested or have charges pending. Because a number of the cases are submitted to the Josephine County District Attorney's Office for potential charges toward additional suspects, not all of the mentioned cases list names of persons related to the investigations.

According to Johnson, the majority of the cases involved individuals associated with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) and focused on growing or possessing significantly more marijuana than allowed under the program.

I also found this revealing quote from Sheriff Gilbertson in a Mail Tribune article about how Oregon's medical marijuana law was turning the plant into a cash crop in places like Josephine County.

"Medical marijuana is a joke," said Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson in an interview with the Mail Tribune. "The amount of people who have those cards is ludicrous. My understanding is that only about four percent of the cardholders have legitimate ailments.

"This is creating a nightmare for law enforcement," he added. "Who is going to knock on all those doors to check if they are legal? It would take several full-time deputies just to do the checks. We don't have the resources for that."

His department frequently receives calls from people alleging that individual medical marijuana growers have too many plants, he said.

"When that happens, we have to take a deputy off another case to check it out," he said. "It's time-consuming."

That quote is from 2010, presumably before the cuts to Sheriff Gilbertson's department. But all of the other stories ran after the rape in August of last year. It's also true that multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces are usually funded with federal grants. Gilbertson couldn't redirect the task force to more conventional police duties if he wanted to. They don't report to him. But they're also staffed and at least partially funded by local law enforcement agencies like Gilbertson's, and there's no obligation to participate. (As a point of fact, according to the R.A.D.E. Interagency Narcotics Team website, the Josephine County Sheriff's Office is not a current participant in the program, although it has been in the past. The police department in Grants Pass, the county seat of Josephine County, is a participant.). Moreover, while there's abundant federal funding for anti-drug efforts, there's little to none for more conventional policing. That and policies like drug-related asset forfeiture skew local police agencies to make drug investigations a far higher priority than they otherwise would. There's just much more money to be had for drug arrests.

The story reminds me of Jessica Shaver, whom I wrote about in 2011. When Shaver was assaulted outside a bar, she was forced to track down her assailant herself because no one at Chicago PD seemed interested in investigating the crime. But when a neighbor later reported some pot smoke coming from her apartment, Shaver was hit with a full-on SWAT assault.

The problem here isn't that there are no resources available for law enforcement officers to respond to 911 calls in Josephine County. It's that federal, state, and local officials have decided that preventing Josephine County residents from getting high is more important than preventing them from getting raped.

MORE: The partisan political reactions to this story are typically awful. Wonkette's Rebecca Schoenkopf mockingly calls Josephine County a "libertarian paradise," and chides the dumb rubes for rejecting property tax increases that would (allegedly) fund police officers to respond to 911 calls. (More likely: It would fund more drug raids.) The post then takes the obligatory shots at people who favor local government over national government. You can find similar reactions at ThinkProgress and The Stranger.

Here's the thing. Maybe part of the reason Josephine County is facing budget woes is because more than half the land in the county is owned by the federal government. The federal government doesn't pay property taxes. And property taxes are primarily how local government is funded. Perhaps, just perhaps, the county's residents reject the idea that their federal tax dollars are going toward buying up local land that is sapping the county's tax base, and they resent the notion that if they then want basic services -- like police protection -- they are then asked to make up the difference through higher property taxes. And perhaps -- just perhaps -- they also resent the federal government because while county residents can't get the local cops to respond to a woman being raped, the federal government is imposing its will on the state by funding task forces to raid medical marijuana facilities in a state where voters have expressed a clear will to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes.

But that would require an analysis of this story that involves some nuance, extra reading, and empathy. Better to just make Ayn Rand jokes and mock the dumb, low-income bumpkins for mistrusting the government.

Filed by Radley Balko