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Even chief must obey law.

Byline: The Register-Guard

It has been years since Eugene police Chief Robert Lehner was a street cop, but it's a good bet he still would have no tolerance for a suspect pleading he broke the law because of special circumstances he failed to anticipate.

"The law is the law - and it's my job to enforce it," Lehner would probably say, and he would be right. The law is the law, and it is supposed to be obeyed fully by everyone - from the average guy on the street to the chief of police.

Yet Lehner insists he was justified in concealing a citizen complaint against an officer from police auditor Cris Beamud in direct defiance of a city ordinance requiring that all citizen complaints go through the auditor's office for classification, monitoring and review.

Lehner says he decided on his own to withhold the complaint because he believed releasing the information to the auditor could have endangered an individual's safety.

Because the chief won't discuss the actual complaint, it is impossible to know if that was a valid assessment. For the sake of discussion, let's assume it was. Then there was no reason for the chief to refuse to release the case, with identifying information redacted, to the auditor, who proposed just such a reasonable compromise after learning of the case's existence in June.

Lehner's decision to refer the complaint to the Lane County District Attorney's Office raises troubling questions about whether his real intent was to use the criminal investigation to justify keeping the case from the auditor. Beamud has said police initially told her there were no criminal allegations against the officer and that the complaint merely alleged misconduct. The auditor's version of events was supported by the DA's recent decision not to charge the officer and his urging Lehner to provide the auditor with redacted files of the case.

Lehner says the ordinance should be rewritten to include language that establishes a process for dealing with complaints containing information that might endanger someone's safety - a proposal he should have brought to the council when the complaint in question first arose. Such a change would be both unwise and unnecessary. The chief is fully capable of advising the auditor's office when a case merits sensitive handling, and the auditor is fully capable of responding in a responsible manner. If either refuses to do so, it's time to find a replacement.

The City Council should be leery of any amendment that would allow the chief to withhold complaints at his discretion. That would fundamentally compromise the oversight process by reducing the transparency that is essential to its success. It would open the door to potential abuses by future police administrators who might decide to use it as an excuse to withhold particularly egregious or embarrassing complaints.

Eugene's oversight system cannot work unless its police chief commits, not only in words but in daily practice, to comply with the ordinance that guides its operations. City Manager Jon Ruiz should review Lehner's handling of this case and make clear that he expects full compliance in the future - and that no special exceptions will be tolerated.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Lehner disregarded city's new oversight ordinance
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 3, 2008
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