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.