Greenway patrols rise, but is it safer?

Police patrols on the Bear Creek Greenway have risen in the past year, causing law enforcement officials to believe the 18-mile pedestrian pathway is actually safer than it was in the past.

"I think it is 100 percent better than it was three or four years ago," said Tim George, Medford deputy police chief.

Medford police were scheduled to conduct another sweep along the Greenway this morning and will bring in crews later in the week to clean up the litter and illegal campsites.

On a sheriff helicopter ride this week, about two dozen active and inactive homeless camps from Ashland to just north of the Jackson County Expo were visible. In 2005, a sweep along the Greenway found 40 inhabited homeless camps.

Most of the camp sites seen this week had large piles of garbage, some of it strewn along trails. Shopping carts were dumped into the creek. A couple of small marijuana patches were visible, but it wasn't clear whether they belonged to the homeless who had camps nearby or to someone else.

Police now patrol the Greenway year-round on foot and by bicycle, he said. Volunteers in golf carts also keep an eye on the pedestrian walkway that follows Bear Creek.

In 2005, police responded to 24 calls on the Greenway. In 2006, when police stepped up their patrols after a 15-year-old girl was raped along the path, the number of calls jumped to 47. So far this year, the number of calls is 62, expected to hit 100 by year's end.

George said calls may have increased, but that doesn't mean the crime rate has shot up. With increased patrols, officers are catching offenders in the act and issuing a majority of the calls themselves. Some of the crimes they witnessed included trespassing, camping, assault, harassment, urinating, defecating or being intoxicated in public.

Sheriff Mike Winters said he believes the Greenway is safer than it was two years ago, finding fewer homeless camps in his recent aerial surveillances.

Winters said the number of calls to the Sheriff's Department about problems on the Greenway is down, from 31 in 2006 to 13 so far this year. The serious crimes also are down, with none reported so far this year, compared to four assaults in 2006, he said.

Winters said Community Justice work crews will clear away the campsites before the winter rains wash the debris into the creek, which flows into the Rogue River.

"Some people think we're mean for taking an enforcement action," he said. "But if they only saw the trash left behind from some of these things."

County Greenway Coordinator Karen Smith said that though there is a problem with garbage left behind from the camps, the crime rate is not as bad as people might imagine.

"It's not right to characterize the Greenway as a hazardous place," she said.

On her regular visits to the Greenway, she sees lots of people, including couples, families and women, she said. Some of them even pick the blackberries.

"I see tons of people using it who are not stressed and not anxious," she said. "The more people use it the safer it is, the less hospitable it is for people who want to live in the brush."

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