SALEM — Family, law enforcement, lawmakers and students testified Tuesday at a House hearing on a bill named for Kaylee Sawyer, a Central Oregon Community College student who was murdered in 2016 by Edwin Lara, an on-duty campus security guard.
“Thank you for being here and sharing such an unspeakable tragedy,” House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, told Sawyer’s family.
The House Committee on the Judiciary is considering Senate Bill 576, named “Kaylee’s Law.” It would require campus security forces to look and act less like law enforcement officers — a confusion that advocates say led to Sawyer’s murder.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously on April 23.
The House panel has scheduled a vote for Wednesday, setting up a possible House floor vote as soon as next week.
SB 576 is intended to ensure that campus security vehicles, uniforms and equipment do not appear to be law enforcement. Vehicles would have GPS, an interior video camera or dispatch system that is recorded. Campus officers would be prohibited from making vehicle stops or “stop and frisk” individuals. Comprehensive background checks and psychological testing would also be required before a security officer could be hired.
“What this bill says is if you have a campus security operation, you can’t act like a police force,” testified Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, a chief co-sponsor of the bill.
Knopp’s appearance at the hearing was somewhat surprising because of an ongoing boycott by Senate Republicans of the day’s floor session, denying a quorum to vote on controversial taxes to fund education.
“I have made a commitment to the Sawyer family to see (this) through to the end,” Knopp said.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum testified that she was troubled when she became aware that campus security officers wore uniforms and drove vehicles that match the look most people attached to law enforcement. That had to stop and SB 576 was a step in the right direction, she said.
“So much of the authority of policing comes from this shared cultural image and because there is such a tremendous potential for abuse,” she said.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, a chief co-sponsor of the bill, warned the panel about hearing details of Sawyer’s murder.
“It’s tough to listen to,” she said.
Helt said she lives less a mile from where Kaylee Sawyer was murdered and the bill would be something positive to come out of Sawyer’s death.
“While there is nothing we can do to bring her back, there are things we can do,” she said.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter spoke of years of frustration of dealing with COCC officials.
“We ran into a stone wall,” Porter said.
Porter recounted that Lara told investigators his police-style uniform and vehicle made Sawyer an easy target.
“He knew because of the way he was dressed that he could get close to Kaylee,” he said.
Porter said he felt a personal responsibility that he didn’t push COCC harder, earlier, to make changes.
“One of my great failures was that I wasn’t able to convince them they weren’t police before Kaylee’s death,” he said.
Porter said Kaylee’s Law was not about exacting some kind of revenge on COCC. It deals with all college security forces across the state.
“This isn’t a punishment, it’s standardization,” he said.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel testified that COCC had come up with convoluted and overextended readings of state statutes governing what security guards could do.
They’re also simply wrong, Hummel said
“First, government agencies should comply with the law — hard stop,” he said.
Hummel said that when his office finally investigated a crime on the campus, it was often unable to bring charges.
Hummel said that by the time his office became involved in COCC crimes, security forces had sometimes unlawfully obtained evidence, botched investigations because of a lack of training or involved officers Hummel did not believe would appear to be credible witnesses to juries.
“I support Kaylee’s Law because, if passed, it will make it less likely that there will be another victim like Kaylee Sawyer,” Hummel said.
For Kaylee’s family, the hearing meant telling the story of her brutal murder yet again — hopefully for the last time in Salem.
“Here again today, I am doing everything I can for my little girl,” said Jamie Sawyer, Kaylee’s father. “The pain is so unbearable at times I can hardly breathe.”
Jamie Sawyer recounted the details of Kaylee’s abduction, rape and murder for the committee. He blamed COCC for lax hiring standards that put a uniform on a “sociopath” like Lara, then gave him the tools for his crime.
Approaching Kaylee Sawyer late at night on the campus, Lara looked like police, in a vehicle equipped with police-style roof lights and a push bar bumper.
The officer offered Kaylee Sawyer a ride, and she accepted. But the vehicle had a plastic “cage” between the front and back seats, along with childproof locks that could only be operated by the driver. Kaylee Sawyer was Lara’s prisoner.
“This college failed our daughter,” Jamie Sawyer said. “If it was not going to be Kaylee, it was going to be someone else.”
Sawyer said most of the changes required by the bill were relatively inexpensive. But even if they weren’t, they should be done.
“Are we really going to argue its not worth someone’s life?” Sawyer said.
Crystal Sawyer, Kaylee’s stepmother, agreed that the police look of COCC’s security force would have caused her to get in a vehicle with a stranger.
“Her downfall is she trusted too many people,” Sawyer said. The changes in SB 576 “will keep future generations safer than today.”
Kaylee’s mother, Julie Vanclieve, said her daughter was open and loving to a wide variety of people.
“She found the beauty in all of us,” Vanclieve said. “What happened to Kaylee was savagely unfair.”
Sharon Walden, Kaylee’s maternal grandmother, told of being at the mortuary when Kaylee’s body arrived from the police crime lab. Like the Sawyers, they had been told Kaylee’s body was too badly mangled to view. Kaylee’s maternal grandfather, Jim Walden, known as “Papa Jim” stepped forward.
“Papa Jim kissed her forehead through the body bag,” she said. “We desperately need a law that will ensure this never happens again.”
Jim Walden said COCC officials had been warned by local law enforcement about the appearance and operation of their security force.
“COCC was told almost a year before to modify their uniforms and vehicles,” he said.
Phoenix Rosa, a current COCC student, said feelings about the security force remain unsettled on campus.
“I do not feel protected by my campus security because they are not even acknowledging their responsibility in this case,” Rosa said.
Rowan Mathews, a COCC student and current legislative affairs director for student government, did not want to make a blanket indictment of all officers with COCC’s Campus Public Safety — known as CPS
“CPS officers are just people, of course,” Mathews said. “But their positions come with power, responsibility and, currently, unchecked opportunity to do harm.”
Lara, Sawyer’s killer, pleaded guilty in January 2018 to aggravated murder and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He plead guilty to federal kidnapping and carjacking on April 25 and received a concurrent life sentence. Those charges were related to what U.S. District Judge Michael J. McShane called a “brutal crime spree” in the days after Kaylee Sawyer’s murder. Lara kidnapped a woman in Salem, shot a man in Yreka, California, and carjacked a vehicle with three people inside. He surrendered to the California Highway Patrol near Redding.
Lara still faces charges in Siskiyou County in California.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, email@example.com