By CARLI BROSSEAU and REBECCA WOOLINGTON
It took more than two years to acquire the public records underlying The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation into police accountability in Oregon.
The project began in January 2015, when the newsroom requested the electronic records that the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training keeps on certification, employment and training for police officers.
Dozens of Oregon police officers stay eligible to carry a gun and a badge even after being fired for chronically inept police work or worse, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.READ MORE
The newsroom also requested data on cases in which state regulators considered revoking an officer’s certification.
The state agency imposed hurdle after hurdle.
Regulators put the cost of providing the data at more than $17,000. So the newsroom appealed to the state attorney general’s office, arguing that the cost estimate obstructed public access to important information.
The attorney general’s office helped regulators and the newsroom come to agreement on all but one point. The Oregonian/OregonLive sought the birthdates of police officers. We had no intention of publishing that information. We requested it only to avoid accidentally mistaking officers with clean records for people with similar names and long criminal rap sheets.
The attorney general’s office sided with the newsroom. In response, regulators filed a lawsuit against the reporter. The Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs sought a new exemption to Oregon’s public records law for officer birthdates. Lawmakers obliged.
The Oregonian/OregonLive received the data on officers, minus dates of birth, eight months after its initial request. The lack of dates of birth made it impractical to analyze court data for how effectively the state is catching officers who are charged with a crime.
But the data allowed reporters to identify all officers whose cases had gone before regulators and the outcomes.
To dig deeper into the allegations against officers and how regulators reached their decisions, the newsroom asked for copies of staff reports and any attached documents for 210 officers. Oregon law says state regulators must write a report every time they close a decertification case.
Regulators estimated that providing the documents would cost $29,282.40 for staff time to review for possible redaction. They proposed a 50 percent discount, for a total of $14,641.20.
Because of the high cost, the newsroom eventually narrowed its focus to the 40 police officers who were fired but kept their certifications from 2013 to 2016.
The records included disciplinary memos and internal affairs reports compiled by police departments and sheriffs’ offices. Before answering The Oregonian/OregonLive’s request, the state asked for permission to disclose documents the local agencies had submitted. The local agencies vetoed the release of records on 10 officers.
Getting access to the full case files required the newsroom to appeal repeatedly to the attorney general’s office. Disciplinary records are considered exempt from release under the public records law unless a requester can show that disclosure is in the public interest. In every one of the newsroom’s appeals, the attorney general’s office agreed that disclosure was necessary.
“Given the authority that is entrusted to police officers, there is a significant public interest in monitoring the investigations that DPSST undertakes to determine whether a police officer’s certification should be suspended or revoked,” the deputy attorney general wrote in one of the orders.
“Because DPSST’s investigations rely in a large part on these personnel investigations, public oversight of DPSST would be severely constrained were these records withheld.”
Inquiries from reporters have prompted the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to make some changes.
For example, the department posted on its website a slimmed-down version of its database containing each officer’s certification, employment and training history. In the future, the agency will post documents about officers whose cases are discussed at a public meeting, officials said. They also opened up meetings of work groups and subcommittees to the public after The Oregonian/OregonLive challenged closed-door sessions as a violation of public meetings law.
Administrative closures, the focus of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation, appeared for the first time on the agenda of a public meeting in November. An official read off the names of officers whose cases they closed and briefly described why.
As recently as June, the department continued behind the scenes to take steps that would limit disclosure of police records.
Linsay Hale, the agency’s director of professional standards, sent an email that month to then-Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman noting the attorney general’s recent orders to release disciplinary documents to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
She spelled out how Marshman could keep his officers’ records from reporters in the future. Rather than handing records over to the state, the Portland Police Bureau could ask the state to send someone to Portland to read the records in person.
In an interview, Hale denied trying to thwart transparency. She described this change as a records-management improvement to limit the records the state collects to only the most relevant ones. For example, a criminal investigation would be irrelevant, Hale said, if the officer were convicted.
She said the offer she gave Portland is available to all police departments and sheriffs’ offices. She said the state’s two investigators would drive from Salem to as far as Gold Beach and Umatilla County to review records if asked.
Portland’s Police Bureau, according to a spokesman, hasn’t decided whether or not to accept Hale’s offer under the new chief, Danielle Outlaw.