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Matter of credibility.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Lane County Sheriff Jan Clements sees no need to request an outside investigation of allegations by a 19-year-old Eugene man who says he was severely beaten by four deputies in the Lane County Jail.

Clements should reconsider. While he has promised a rigorous and objective departmental review of Dustin Raymond Robert Stewart's allegations, internal investigations - police investigating police - have inherent credibility problems.

Even if jail deputies did not apply excessive force in dealing with Stewart, an internal investigation reaching that conclusion will have less credibility with the public than an external one with the same finding.

Stewart, who was under arrest for failure to serve a jail sentence for forgery and theft convictions, told Register-Guard reporter Bill Bishop that he was awakened in a holding cell last Friday night by a female deputy who kicked him in the groin and punched him without provocation. He said three male deputies joined the female guard, handcuffing him and spraying pepper spray in his face and then kicking and punching him. He claims that the deputies then dragged him down a hallway and put him in solitary confinement without food until his release - because of jail overcrowding - about 24 hours later.

Stewart's allegations were generally supported by another inmate who witnessed the incident. That witness said it appeared that officers mistook Stewart's initial panic for aggression and knocked him "around like a rag doll" and then slammed his head against a wall. "His only crime was being asleep," the witness said. Another inmate reported hearing Stewart's screams for approximately 15 minutes and then seeing him dragged, his "face full of blood," past the cell where she was being held.

Clements says preliminary staff reports conflict with Stewart's accounts and adds, "It's pretty clear to me there was some sort of resistance." The sheriff also notes that jail deputies are sometimes required to use decisive force to overcome inmate resistance and that the application of such force can be difficult for outsiders to properly assess.

Perhaps. But Clements' statements strongly indicate a preliminary bias that makes it difficult to give full credence to an investigation by his own department. While retired Lane County sheriff's office detectives will conduct the investigation for Clements, that scarcely provides the sort of independent outside perspective that's needed.

In fairness, law enforcement agencies have as much distrust of external reviews as the public has of internal investigations. Paramilitary organizations such as police, as well as the unions that represent officers, typically resist the openness and accountability that come with external reviews - in particular those conducted by civilians and not by law enforcement professionals.

This newspaper has long advocated the establishment of external citizen review boards to investigate public complaints against local police, and has applauded Eugene Police Chief Robert Lehner's recent efforts to move his department toward an external review process.

Lane County should consider joining Eugene as it explores moving from its current internal review process to external civilian reviews. In the meantime, Clements should request an outside investigation of Stewart's disturbing allegations.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Sheriff needs external probe of jail incident
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 14, 2004
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