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Police Chief Accountability

How will Eugene choose its next chief?

Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns recently announced he will retire in the next month or so. His departure affords our community a critical opportunity to ensure that the leadership of our local law enforcement maintains and instills the values we believe are essential to a just and fair city. 

Especially now, as the Trump regime ratchets up hate, ignorance and intolerance around the country, it is vital that the leader of our police force — who have legal authority to kill and imprison citizens — is accountable to us and represents our morals and values as a welcoming place regardless of race, gender identity, immigration status, economic status, religion, disability or mental health status or political belief or activist engagement. 

During his tenure, Chief Kerns was ultimately responsible for several high-profile incidents of police misconduct. In fall 2015, Eugene police officer Will Stutesman shot and killed Brian Babb, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, while Babb was standing on his own doorstep. 

“The deadly encounter occurred less than an hour after Babb’s therapist called 911 to report that Babb, who suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, was suicidal and had fired a gun in the house,” The Register-Guard writes in an October 2015 news story. “Babb’s family members and the therapist have criticized the department for escalating the situation by calling for an armored response-and-rescue vehicle, known as a BearCat, during its response and interrupting [Becky] Higgins’ efforts to calm Babb over the phone by using the vehicle’s loudspeaker to order him out of his house unarmed.”

Kerns backed the actions of the officer saying that he made a decision that aligned with the protocol of the department. No discipline or accountability occurred because of this shooting, which is now the focus of a pending wrongful-death and civil rights action brought by his teenaged children. 

Additionally, Kerns oversaw, yet provided no discipline or accountability to police officers regarding a July 16, 2016, police misconduct incident where an African-American mother called 911 for medical crisis intervention services when her teenage son was having a psychotic break. Police responded by brutalizing them — including tasing the 19-year-old victim. The Eugene Police auditor upheld the allegations made in a civilian complaint and determined that EPD had “unsatisfactory performance” and recommended disciplining the officers. 

Chief Kerns decided that the officer was acting within EPD policy on the use of force. Kerns rarely agreed to discipline an officer for unlawful use of excessive force or for violating the civil rights of a member of the public.

In selecting the next chief of police, we the people must ensure that critical improvements occur in EPD hiring practices, training, supervision, and implementation of discipline. We need to ensure that changes to police policies and practices also occur — like ending racial and economic profiling by cops, including enjoining the criminalization of homeless and mentally ill community members. 

We also need to ensure that local cops are not used as pawns to punish dissent or to target people for exercising their First Amendment rights of assembly and expression. 

At this time, it is unclear how this hiring process will unfold. Will the city allow our unelected city manager to hire the chief of police on his own? Who will have a seat at the table and how large will that table be when it comes to reviewing, interviewing and providing feedback on the qualifications and desirability of a particular candidate? 

Only through complete transparency will this process serve the people and offer any hope of police accountability. It is time for all social justice organizations and individuals to join together to exert power and influence in contrast to the usual moneyed individuals and entities who dominate this type of decision-making in Eugene. Only with a united front and unified vision of what we want in a chief of police will we have any real say on who replaces Chief Kerns.

If you or your organization want to join the CLDC in calling for an open, transparent hiring process that will ensure our next police chief will uphold human rights and social justice for all, and will enforce a zero-tolerance policy that forbids police brutality and misconduct, send an email to info@cldc.org, and we will add you to our working group email list.

Lauren Regan is the executive director and senior attorney at the Civil Liberties Defense Center. For the past 20 years she has sued police departments, including the Eugene Police Department, for federal civil rights violations and police misconduct. For more info on the CLDC and our upcoming Know Your Rights trainings, go to cldc.org.