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Police investigation records not exempt from records law

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   OREGON   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   June 3, 2005


Police investigation records not exempt from records law

  • Internal police documents detailing the investigation and discipline of a police officer who shot and killed a woman, sparking racial unrest and widespread news coverage, must be released, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday.

June 3, 2005  ·   The (Portland) Oregonian has a right to see the internal investigation and discipline records of a Portland, Ore., police officer who shot and killed a woman during a traffic stop in 2003, the state Court of Appeals in Salem ruled Wednesday.

The three-judge panel unanimously upheld the ruling of Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael C. Zusman, who found that District Attorney Mike Schrunk correctly interpreted the state public records law as entitling the newspaper to documents including memos and material from an internal review of the shooting.

Racial unrest erupted in Portland in May 2003 after police shot and killed a black woman. An officer pulled over a rented vehicle for a traffic violation and took the driver out of the car, while Officer Scott McCollister, who was on backup, tried to remove Kendra James from the car.

James moved into the driver’s seat and started the car. McCollister tried to pull James out of the car, and was partially inside the vehicle. When James started to drive away, McCollister shot her once. The car stopped and the officers pulled her out and handcuffed her. She died soon after.

The Portland Police Bureau conducted an internal investigation and McCollister was disciplined with five and a half months unpaid leave. The city disclosed a letter stating the disciplinary action, but refused to release the internal investigation records.

The city of Portland argued that the internal police records were exempt from disclosure under a provision allowing a public body to withhold documents if the public interest in ensuring frank communication between employees clearly outweighs the public interest of disclosure. The trial and appeals courts disagreed.

After reviewing the documents in question, the appellate court found “they contain nothing that could cause a chilling effect of such magnitude as to outweigh the benefit to be reaped by allowing the public to determine whether a full, frank, and thorough investigation of this highly inflammatory and widely reported incident occurred.”

Judge David Schuman, writing for the court, noted the Oregon public records law favors disclosure by stating that “every person has a right to inspect any public record of a public body in this state.”

“I’m gratified the courts enforce the Oregon open records laws as vigorously as they do, but it’s a pity that local governments continue to resist them,” said Charles Hinkle, The Oregonian‘s attorney. “I don’t think The Oregonian has ever lost a public records case against the city.”

The ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

(City of Portland v. Oregonian Publishing Company, Media Counsel: Charles F. Hinkle, Stoel Rives LLP, Portland, Ore.)JM

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