This week's shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old by a Springfield police officer should prod the Oregon Legislature to approve Attorney General Hardy Myers' plan to make changes in the way law enforcement agencies investigate officers' use of deadly force.
Senate Bill 301 would amend state law to make deadly force investigations more transparent and more consistent across the state. It would improve training for police to help them both avoid and deal with fatal incidents, and it would ensure that support is available for both families of victims and officers.
The legislation was prompted by several Portland police shootings in recent years, although Sunday's fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jason Michael Porter in Springfield makes it clear that police use of deadly force is a statewide issue.
Many Oregon law enforcement agencies have only limited plans and policies that address deadly force; some have none. SB 301 requires that the district attorney and sheriff in each of Oregon's 36 counties lead local task forces that would draw up plans to be submitted to the attorney general for review.
While the plans would have to meet basic standards, they could be tailored to meet local preferences. For example, police agencies in Lane County could craft policies mandating that any deadly force incident involving a minor be reviewed by a grand jury. Currently, such decisions are left to district attorneys in each county.
The bill would allow district attorneys to refer deadly force cases to grand juries, even when they do not have reason to believe an officer committed a crime.
Transcripts of grand jury testimony in such cases would be made public unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. That's a departure from the historic secrecy of grand jury proceedings, but it's both a limited and warranted exception that is justified by the importance of keeping an often-anxious and angry public fully and accurately informed. Currently, civil lawsuits are often the only way that the public ends up getting detailed information about deadly force incidents.
The bill would require that at least one outside agency be involved in any deadly force investigation, which would help ensure that reviews are fair and avoid allegations that police agencies are protecting their own. Police agencies would be required to report all deadly force incidents - including fatalities, injuries and "misses" - to the state. Currently, no such records are kept.
Critics have argued that the bill would impose a financial burden on local governments, but it includes funding that would cover much of the planning costs. Some also have charged that the legislation is motivated by Portland area police shootings and not needed elsewhere in the state. But the attorney general's office estimates that an average of at least two dozen deadly force incidents occur each year, and that they occur across the state.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved SB 301, but it has yet to be voted on by the full Senate. In the wake of Sunday's tragic shooting in Springfield, Lane County lawmakers in both the Senate and House should lend their full support to this bill.
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|Title Annotation:||Editorials; Bill would change investigations of shootings|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jun 30, 2005|
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