Now is the time to create a statewide database of disciplinary actions taken against law enforcement officers. The Legislature is considering one.
But the proposal has big enough holes in it to drive a SWAT van through. And the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs, which says it represents more than 2,000 law enforcement officers, is trying to stop the bill from passing in the special session.
The bill under development directs the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to regularly publish a database of officer disciplinary records. And it also requires the DPSST to annually report to the Legislature the number of complaints against officers by agency.
Nothing like that exists now in Oregon. And that could mean officers who have had disciplinary problems would move on to other agencies and the hiring agency would not know. The DPSST does maintain a database that is publicly accessible of officers in Oregon that includes things like training and certification. Not discipline.
Oregon law also generally prohibits agencies from sharing the results of disciplinary actions if it did not result in any discipline. There are conditions under which the information may be disclosed, but often it’s the agency making that decision and disclosure of the investigation may reflect badly on them. So guess what happens? Nothing is disclosed.
The Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs first says it supports the idea of a database to share disciplinary records among police agencies. And then it says: It doesn’t like the bill. There are many reasons. It would require changing police union contracts. So what? The organization argues it would violate rights to privacy of law enforcement. Sorry, when law enforcement officers are disciplined, the public should be able to know. We do agree with the coalition that Social Security numbers and medical records should not be publicly available. There is no suggestion, though, that they would be made public in the bill. In the end, the law enforcement group wants to delay any such bill. No, the time is now.
One of the problems we see in the bill is that there is no requirement about how often the database is updated. When there is no time requirement for disclosure, sometimes things will be disclosed quickly. Sometimes disclosure is delayed, indefinitely. Legislators should include a fixed time limit for updating the records. And there should also be penalties for agencies and public disclosure of police agencies who do not promptly submit disciplinary records. Of course, most departments will follow the letter and the spirit of the law if a database is created. But as we know from our experience with Oregon’s public records law, some won’t without firm deadlines and penalties.
When an individual puts on a police uniform, he or she becomes a public official. An officer’s actions are not above scrutiny. The public has the right to know when an officer engages in misconduct. The Legislature should pass this bill.