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Editorials from around Oregon

May 15, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Bend Bulletin, May 13, on the U.S. Forest Service’s permit system for national forests in central Oregon:

The U.S. Forest Service has decided to build a wall of permits and fees to dramatically reduce public access to wilderness trailheads in the Deschutes and Willamette national forests.

It will issue a limited number of permits at 19 trailheads for day use and 79 trailheads for overnight use. And it will start charging a new fee.

What’s the fee? The Forest Service hasn’t decided.

That’s the first of many problems with the new permit system: The public was asked to react to the plan without knowing the fee. How can anyone decide if a permit system is fair without knowing what it will cost? It can’t. Moreover, any fee beyond a nominal charge makes access more difficult for many people.

Congress would have to change federal law so that a fee is considered at the same time as the permit system, but Oregon’s delegation has not championed any change. Thanks for nothing.

A second problem is the Forest Service’s approach. In its decision, the Forest Service writes: “We need to strike a balance between implementing management actions that will reduce recreation impacts, while at the same time are minimal actions necessary.” But these are not the minimal actions necessary. The Forest Service could have gone on a public relations blitz to publicize that wilderness access would be limited unless people stopped being so careless with trash. It could have ramped up enforcement and rangers on the trails. It made no such push. It went right to restricting access and charging a fee.

There is also a loophole in the Forest Service’s decision that people could exploit. Some hunters would not be required to get a permit. Hunters with a “General Archery Deer hunt tag will be exempt from day use limits and be able to scout and hunt in these wilderness areas without a limited entry day use permit.” It makes you wonder how many people will suddenly get a newfound interest in “scouting” hunting locations.

Americans support protection of their public lands. But if people can’t get access to it, support for its protection will erode.

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The Mail Tribune, May 15, on the deal struck be state lawmakers to pass the education funding bill:

Oregon senators on either side of the aisle are being coy about the details, but it appears both parties got something out of a deal that saw a $2 billion tax pass to fund schools and the deaths of controversial measures to restrict guns and eliminate non-medical exemptions for childhood vaccines. The episode illustrates the limits of super-majority power when a determined minority refuses to cooperate.

Democrats have enough seats to pass tax increases with no Republican support. But Senate rules require at least 20 senators be present to hold a vote, and the Democrats hold only 18 seats. All 12 Republicans boycotted the chamber for seven floor sessions, leaving Senate President Peter Courtney unable to conduct business.

The rules allow Courtney to ask the governor to send state troopers after recalcitrant lawmakers and haul them back, but he didn’t take that extreme step. That’s to Courtney’s credit; he said he’d rather see the Legislature work things out.

In the end, Democrats agreed to drop the gun and vaccine bills, despite strong support in their caucus for both measures, because the school funding bill was a top priority. When Republicans staged their walkout, they left signs on their desks on the Senate floor demanding reforms to the underfunded Public Employee Retirement System. They didn’t end up with any clear promise of PERS action, although there is bipartisan legislation in the works that would limit benefits and reduce payments into the system.

Give and take always has been part of the legislative process, and it was refreshing to see it in action this week, even in a Legislature with one party controlling three-fifths of both chambers. Minority Republicans resorted to the only tools they had to resist a tax measure they did not support, starting with insisting that bills be read out loud in their entirety — a rule usually waived in the interest of time. Then they refused to show up, and used that leverage to extract concessions from the majority.

The tax measure passed anyway, but Republicans killed two other bills they strongly opposed. Majority Democrats, despite their power, were forced to make concessions, and that’s good for the process.

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The Register-Guard, May 12, on secrecy surrounding police shootings:

Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow has closed the books on another officer-involved shooting. It remains unclear if the top local prosecutor prioritizes serving the public or the police. Perlow kept a lid on everything, at least on the police side of things, for weeks while she investigated whether the shooting was justified. Such secrecy does not befit her office.

On March 31, a Springfield police officer used deadly force during a traffic stop. The department deferred to Perlow for the investigation and when to release the officer’s name. Eugene police did the same after officers shot a person in front of Cascade Middle School last year. In both cases, Perlow chose not to identify the officers publicly until after her investigation was complete.

Let us be clear here. Perlow did choose; she was not compelled to secrecy. Most exemptions to Oregon public records law are discretionary. Public officials are encouraged to keep the public informed about crucial matters. And few things are more crucial than when an agent of the government shoots and kills someone.

Perlow justifies her secrecy with a records exemption that allows confidentiality for information that could harm an ongoing investigation. She believes the names of officers and other details in fatal incidents meet that standard.

They do not.

Perlow has not presented a convincing case for exactly what the potential harm of identifying an officer is. If a name alone is enough to cast an investigation into doubt, why do police and prosecutors rush to release the names of people they arrest?

Oregon law has a presumption in favor of disclosure. Before withholding records, an official must balance the public interest of secrecy against the public interest of disclosure, with stronger weight given to transparency. The feelings of officers, their families and their supervisors aren’t supposed to be a factor.

We don’t doubt that the investigations were fair and the shootings justified, but the long wait for details and identities creates the appearance that the very person who is supposed to be investigating what officers did is shielding them. The public might easily conclude that it is to give officers time to get their stories straight — at the nefarious end of things — or to protect the feelings and emotions of officers and their families after a shooting — at the misguided altruism end of things.

A better way

Police departments and prosecutors in Oregon and around the country release the names of officers involved in shootings without ill effects all the time.

Last month, a Richland, Washington police officer shot a suspect. Last summer Deschutes County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a Springfield man on a forest road. Later last year, a police officer in Oxnard, California shot a man. In 2017, Kennewick, Washington police officers shot a suspect.

In every one of those cases and many more, the names of the officers and other details were released within a handful of days, often the next day.

Transparency doesn’t have to be just a raw information dump. Smart agencies frame the information to help the media and the public better understand what happened. They continue to release updates as more details come to light. And they typically ask officers not to engage individually with the media until the issue is resolved.

Perlow and local law enforcement should check out how the Portland Police Department handles deadly force incidents. It has a publicly available timeline that assigns clear responsibilities after a shooting. The public information officer provides an information release on the day of the event that includes bare-bones information. The next day, the PIO shares more details including “number of officers involved, their years of service and names. Information will continue to be released including that pertaining to community member(s) involved as it becomes available.”

That aligns with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution’s Toolkit on Officer-Involved Fatalities and Critical Incidents, which recommends transparency after law enforcement shoots a civilian.

Portland has unique challenges that don’t necessarily translate directly to smaller Lane County. Nevertheless, the Portland timeline could serve as a starting point for developing local policies that keep the public informed.

People care passionately about policing and are willing to help. Prosecutors and law enforcement don’t need to and shouldn’t go it alone. How Lane County and its localities react to police use of force is a question that affects diverse community stakeholders. A committee of representatives from those communities, including the media, could draft a policy for best practices of disseminating information about investigations so that officials build credibility and stop undermining it.