SALEM — Grieving family members, frustrated law enforcement leaders and worried students testified Wednesday in favor of a bill dedicated to a Central Oregon Community College student murdered in 2016.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 576, which supporters call “Kaylee’s Law.” It’s named after Kaylee Sawyer of Bend, a COCC student who was abducted, raped and bludgeoned to death by Edwin Lara, a campus security officer.
The bill would require community colleges to “de-police” the appearance and approach of their security forces. It also explicitly bars security officers from police-type activities such as “stop and frisk.”
“Kaylee’s Law attempts to brighten the line between campus safety officers and law enforcement,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said.
Sharon Walden, Kaylee’s maternal grandmother, said that line had been intentionally blurred by COCC in a way that led to her granddaughter’s death.
“Dressing like a police officer and driving a vehicle that resembles a police car does not make you a police officer,” she said. “The Central Oregon Community College was deliberately indifferent. They valued the illusion of being law enforcement over the life of our Kaylee.”
The bill would require criminal background checks on campus security officers and require colleges to share information on applicants with law enforcement.
It also mandates colleges take several steps to visually distinguish between campus security and local law enforcement. Uniforms and markings on security officer’s vehicles would not resemble those of law enforcement. Vehicles could not have police-style lights on their roofs, cages that separate the driver from someone riding in the back seat or bumpers designed to ram other vehicles.
Campus security vehicles would also have to be equipped with global positioning systems and digital cameras to record what is going on in the vehicle.
The bill specifies that campus security officers do not have the authority of law enforcement. They cannot stop and frisk people and must immediately inform law enforcement when they make a “citizen’s arrest.”
Most of those who testified criticized COCC leadership for making its security force look like police — including black uniforms, badges and similar vehicles with the same rooftop blue-and-red light bar used by police.
“You cannot act and look like a police force without the accountability and responsibility,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, one of the chief co-sponsors of the bill. “Law enforcement in Central Oregon has done everything they can to try to improve this situation, and it has not worked to date.”
COCC officials did not testify at the hearing.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter said he has invited COCC to send security officers to train with the department to improve procedures and learn the limits of their authority.
“Quite frankly, they rebuff any laws, and our district attorney, which I find unbelievable,” Porter said.
The situation at the campus has not changed since Kaylee Sawyer’s death. “I am sorry to say people are still being detained, stopped, on the campus by the security,” Porter said. “Why? Because they are dressed like police officers.”
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel testified that he and Porter had met with college officials more than 15 times to try to resolve the problem.
“The college officials persisted in saying the law is unclear in this area,” Hummel said. “Well, they are wrong on that.”
Hummel said after the hearing that before the introduction of SB 576, he was prepared to prosecute COCC security officers for impersonating law enforcement officers.
“They continue to operate like a police force and completely misunderstand the law,” Hummel said.
During the hearing, Sawyer’s family recounted the circumstances of her death.
At about 1 a.m. July 24, 2016, Sawyer was walking on the COCC campus. She was approached by Lara, who was dressed in a law enforcement-style uniform and driving a dark patrol car with a Plexiglas “cage” separating the front and back seats and auto-locking doors. Once inside the vehicle, Lara drove to a deserted area, where he assaulted and killed Sawyer. Her body was later found in a ravine between Sisters and Redmond.
Sawyer’s family laid much of the blame for Kaylee’s death on COCC.
“Of all the people to not only hurt her, but to murder her brutally, was a college security guard who was supposed to keep her safe,” said Crystal Sawyer, Kaylee’s stepmother.
Jamie Sawyer, Kaylee’s father, told lawmakers her murder left him without hope and joy.
“This college failed our daughter and put a sociopathic individual in a trusted position with little safeguards to assure his behavior on the job was appropriate,” he said.
Jim Walden, Kaylee’s maternal grandfather, said he hoped the safeguards in Kaylee’s Law will save future families from grief.
“Had they heeded these directives, we’ve been told by the investigating detectives, Kaylee would probably be alive today,” he said.
Ozmund Smith, COCC student body president, said students remain confused as to the exact role of public safety officers.
“Not all officers will abuse their power, but students deserve more than luck to rely on during interactions with public safety officers,” Smith said. “Our students’ lives should not be dependent on how an individual officer, with little accountability and resources equivalent to that of sworn police officers, chooses to conduct themselves.”
The bill has the support of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, Oregon State Sheriff’s Association and Oregon Student’s Association.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a chief co-author of Kaylee’s Law, said he expected the bill would come up for a vote by the panel before the end of the month.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, email@example.com
Bulletin reporter Garrett Andrews contributed to this story.