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Police departments frequently make use of citizen volunteers to help them keep the peace. Typically, these volunteers operate as members of police "auxiliary" units and help with such tasks as crowd control and traffic control.
But a small Oregon town has taken the concept a bit further.
On Nov. 12, the city council members of Cave Junction (population 1,971) voted unanimously to launch a policing system featuring surveillance cameras managed by civilian volunteers.
Cave Junction hasn't had a police department since 1980, when it was axed due to budget cuts. Since then, it has relied on county sheriff's deputies to come around, but the sheriff's office has also been hit hard by budget cuts and by a consistent refusal of residents to pay for more deputies with higher taxes.
Deputies patrol Cave Junction only during weekday work hours, leaving the town somewhat unprotected at night at a time when robberies and thefts connected to the area's growing marijuana industry have been increasing. But instead of paying for stronger traditional policing, the town is turning to its own residents — along with surveillance cameras — to do the job.
Citizens in the town have created a group called CJ Patrol to keep tabs on any nefarious goings-on at night and tip off the sheriff's department. But since there are no deputies nearby, on-the-spot crime deterrence is not exactly strong, which is why the town is turning to surveillance cameras. Apparently, the city council believes that regularly monitored surveillance cameras will provide deterrence by their very existence.
CJ Patrol says they don't intend to take on actual police functions.
"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 says on its website. “What we are and seek to be is a strong deterrent against residential, business, and personal property crime."
Maybe this arrangement will reduce crime in Cave Junction. But might it also create liability issues for the city?
A city official told Jefferson Public Radio that the volunteers are untrained in law enforcement and can identify potential criminal just by the way they look. “They can identify them by the way that they dress," she told the station, "because they have a certain apparel that they wear all the time, or the way they walk."
Hearing this comment, Oregon Justice Resource Center tweeted, "Civil rights violation incoming in 5,4,3,2,1..."
Meanwhile, if this looks like an isolated incident involving civilians doing work traditionally done by cops, it apparently is not.
Washington, D.C. is considering a proposal that would call upon a team of civilian volunteers to identify parking scofflaws. Unlike meter maids, however, civilian parking snitches would remain anonymous.
In Seattle, the police are lending speed guns to residents to inform on traffic offenders in their neighborhoods.
In Malibu, Calif., non-police volunteers have begun to actually write traffic tickets. The city certifies 15 volunteers after they take 96 hours of training to learn about traffic control, parking enforcement, and CPR. The volunteers, who are unarmed and provided marked vehicles, wrote 9,140 tickets in 2018.
While police departments are increasingly relying on civilians to snitch on each other, they're also having them take on traditional police roles — even carrying guns and making arrests.
"Many law enforcement agencies save money by handing badges, sidearms and uniforms to a civilian force of part-time officers often with no law enforcement experience and without the rigorous academy training required of regular police," the Illinois Better Government Association reported recently, listing numerous costly and deadly screw-ups by volunteer cops.
In October 2018, the Detroit Free Press reached a similar conclusion about police reserves in Michigan. The Free Press counted 3,000 of them patrolling streets, often armed, and operating "with no state oversight."
As the Better Government Association and the Free Press point out, there can be serious unforeseen costs involved when we try to cut costs with "citizen cops." It's a risky step, and it's one Cave Junction just took.