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Police accountability is non-existent in Salem & Keizer
With Salem Police the deadliest in the state, it’s beyond time for meaningful citizen oversight.
In late March 2023, the Statesman Journal published what should have been a bombshell piece of reporting by Whitney Woodworth.
Police in Salem are the deadliest law enforcement agency in Oregon. They kill residents at 2x the rate of officers in Eugene, and at a rate ⅓ higher than police in Portland.
From the Statesman Journal, with killings per 100k residents show in the bottom right quadrant:
Salem Chief of Police has no shortage of excuses
Behind a litany of excuses and feelings Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack had about his department’s status as the deadliest in Oregon, he was unable to provide much of anything substantive to explain why.
Womack noted in the Statesman Journal story how hard this all is on his officers (and the community, of course), and how he wishes it wasn’t like this. But, based on his responses, it sounds like Chief Womack considers his department’s status as the deadliest in the state…just part of the job. Unavoidable external factors, he suggests, are causing the data to look terrible.
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But, when you actually strip away the emotional appeals made by Womack throughout the piece, you find it all boils down to…feelings (with a side of “don’t defund the police” propaganda):
But Woodworth (with help from former Statesman Journal reporter Dejania Oliver) does a great job of dismantling Womack’s hollow, emotional explanations and showing that other cities, like Eugene, don’t have as deadly a record in the face of similar circumstances. It’s very much worth the read.
We’ve tried nothing…and we’re all out of ideas.
In the Statesman Journal article, Woodworth describes in detail how Eugene spends a sliver of the law enforcement budget on a program that sends a trained team to handle those in mental health crises.
And based on Woodworth’s reporting, dealing with mental health crises seems to be a weak spot in the Salem Police ranks, with fatal consequences for some:
“According to a review of grand jury decisions by the Statesman Journal, more than half of those killed by Salem Police during the past decade were in the midst of a mental health crisis or had a history of mental illness.”
But there doesn’t seem to exist the political will in Salem to actually create something similar to the wildly successful CAHOOTS model.
Only Salem City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke appears to be doggedly pursuing a mental health crisis squad for the Salem community.
But the biggest obstacle seems to be finding the money to fund such an endeavor. Which is weird because elected officials in Salem just found a few million in the General Fund couch cushions to spend on an entirely risky bet on the Salem Municipal Airport.
Huge Budgets. Zero Oversight.
Speaking of allocating money to the smartest solutions for our community, law enforcement is one of the largest single expenditures of general fund public money for both Salem & Keizer.
Would it surprise you that neither city has any meaningful citizen oversight into how these budget-busting agencies run?
Not even a hint of oversight in Keizer
According to recent reporting in the KeizerTimes, police in Keizer account for nearly $9.5 million in city spending, or a whopping 66% of the general fund budget. For comparison, parks in Keizer represent just shy of $1.5 million in outlays of general fund budget, or around 10%.
Keizer has an entire 9-member Parks Advisory Board that “reviews and studies issues that involve development and maintenance of city parks and makes recommendations to the Council.”
Keizer Police, at more than 6x the budget impact than parks…has no oversight.
But don’t look to Salem PD for an example to follow.
Salem Police oversight is virtually non-existent and hasn’t reviewed a single action in years.
The problem is…the 7-member board hasn't had an incident to review since 2018 - likely longer, but that’s how far back board meeting minutes date on the Salem website.
Every quarter. Each Year. Since 2018…
Agenda Item # 5. Request for Review Hearings - “None”
In the early 2018 meetings of the CPRB, there was faint whisper of a review case that had been pending since 2017. And even some discussion and review of what to actually do if there was actually a case to…y’know, review.
Eventually, that whisper of a case was put to rest in 2020.
And then…they kinda just kept reviewing the rules. Getting ready? I guess? All I know is this Community Police Review Board hasn’t reviewed anything in 6+ years.
If your police department is the deadliest department in the state, as reported, and your civilian review board is nudging each other to stay awake…you might have a bottleneck somewhere in that process. Right?
Based on reading through years of meeting minutes and stitching together threads of conversation across quarterly meetings, it seems like most complaints about police behavior are resolved by the officer explaining why their behavior wasn’t actually wrong. Feel free to confirm that for yourself - it takes about an hour to read them all.
I don’t mean to knock or insult the folks who serve on this committee, by the way. I’m sure they all have the best intentions. It just seems like there’s something in the way of their committee getting to do their actual job. I’d love to see them actually do it!
With almost no community oversight, and one of the single biggest budgets in the city of Salem:
Police - $55 million
Fire - $43 million
Parks & Rec - $12 million
Library - $5.9 million
Municipal Court - $2.4 million
It’s safe to say the Salem (and Keizer) communities could benefit greatly from meaningful citizen oversight over such huge investments.
With so much public money being diverted to law enforcement by our elected officials, it’s fair to want a center seat at the table.