SALEM — In an extraordinary and personal show of unanimity, the Senate on Tuesday approved a bill named in honor of Kaylee Sawyer, a Bend woman who was abducted and killed in 2016 by a Central Oregon Community College campus safety officer.
At a time of almost assembly-line legislation and frequent partisan backbiting, Democrats and Republicans stopped normal business and bent their parliamentary rules. They honored a murder victim’s life and consoled her family by passing a law to ensure the tools used in the crime against her could not be used again.
“When the Senate acts like this, this is profound to say the least,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.
Senate Bill 576 would require that colleges with campus security officers ensure they can be easily distinguished from law enforcement.
The Senate’s unanimous vote was expected. But the manner in which it was held was not.
Kaylee Sawyer’s family was given an uncommon honor when the Senate voted to suspend its rules to allow her father and stepmother to come to the floor of the ornate chamber for the presentation and vote on the bill.
Jamie Sawyer, Kaylee’s father, sat with Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. Crystal Sawyer, Kaylee’s stepmother, sat with Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene. Knopp and Prozanski are the chief Senate co-sponsors of SB 576.
Knopp rose to recount for the Senate the details of the death of 23-year-old Kaylee Sawyer. After leaving a late-night party in July 2016, she was walking alone on the COCC campus when she was approached by what looked like a police vehicle, with a blue light bar on top and a push bumper in front. Inside was a uniformed officer. Knopp did not mention his name: Edwin Lara.
The officer asked Sawyer if she needed a ride. She got into the back seat, where she found a partition — known as a cage — between her and the driver, and no way to unlock the doors. The officer drove Sawyer to a secluded spot, where he raped her before bludgeoning her to death. Lara would eventually plead guilty to Sawyer’s death and be sentenced to life in prison.
“Kaylee was the sort of person who made everyone feel better when she was around,” Knopp said. “Her smile and laugh were infectious. She was fiercely devoted to family. The future was wide open for her. While nothing we do today can bring Kaylee Sawyer back, I hope we can honor her memory together with the passage of this bill dedicated to her name.”
Knopp thanked Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Bend Police Chief Jim Porter and Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel for helping to push for the legislation.
Prozanski then rose to explain the details of the bill. Its many requirements include ensuring that uniforms, equipment and vehicles of campus officers have a non-police appearance. Vehicles must have either GPS, an interior video camera or dispatch system that is recorded. Campus officers would be barred from making vehicle stops or having “stop and frisk” authority of individuals. It also requires strict background checks and psychological testing be done prior to hiring an officer.
At the end of his comments, Prozanski turned to the Sawyer family.
“I just want to thank you for all you did to come forward and be a participant,” he said. “I know, I can feel and understand the tragedy as it has to be, for you, every day you live. And also coming into such a forum to share with us. But without your strong support and your desire to do better for students in the future, we wouldn’t be able to have this kind of legislation.”
The clerk then called the roll, with each senator answering “aye” or “yes.” The vote was 29-0. Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, could not be in attendance because of illness.
Courtney, the Senate president, announced the bill had passed and pounded his gavel. Normally, Courtney would immediately go onto the next bill under consideration. Instead, he paused and put the gavel aside to speak.
“To the family and loved ones of Kaylee, the Senate did a lot of special things today,” Courtney said. “They made this bill a special order of business. They had to suspend the rules to do that. There is a Republican and Democrat carrier. But there are no Democrats or Republicans on this floor today.”
Courtney said it was the Senate’s way of joining together to hopefully stop what happened to Kaylee Sawyer from happening again.
“We spoke with a total affirmative vote,” Courtney said. “And this was all done hopefully, not only to honor Kaylee. We did all this with a heavy heart, perhaps even a broken heart, thinking of you and what has happened to you.”
The bill now goes to the House. Courtney gave his “guarantee” that it would pass in the other chamber and then go to Gov. Kate Brown to “become part of our laws.”
“It is a sad day, but also a day, perhaps, where there is a little peace,” Courtney said to Kaylee Sawyer’s family. “The Oregon State Senate is very proud of what it has done and we hope, in some way, it maybe can mend your heart a bit, though I know that perhaps that is not totally possible.”
Despite Courtney’s assurances, Kaylee Sawyer’s relatives know they will have to testify or hear about Kaylee’s murder again in Salem. It is hard on friends and family, but there is no alternative.
“We want to bring honor to Kaylee’s life, to find a positive purpose out of tragedy,” said Jamie Sawyer, her father. “What we hope we are doing will save people’s lives. We’ve been doing this for 14 months here. We will be here for every House hearing, House vote, and when the governor signs.”
—Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org