Eugene Weekly : News : 9.3.09

Top Cop Tarnished
Victim alleged Kerns ignored cop rape complaint
by Alan Pittman

Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz named department veteran Pete Kerns as Eugene’s police chief last week.

“Chief Kerns is a person of strong integrity,” Ruiz said at a press conference. 

But Kerns allegedly failed to act on a complaint that a fellow officer was sexually abusing women in the worst scandal in Eugene police history. Roger Magaña was sentenced to 94 years in prison in 2004 for using his police power to rape, sexually abuse, assault and/or harass a dozen women over five years as a Eugene police officer. 

Pete Kerns

At Magaña’s criminal trial, one of his victims alleged under oath that she told then Lieutenant Kerns and two other EPD officers about the sex abuse, but Kerns and the other officers did nothing.

“Why the hell didn’t they listen to me?” the woman later asked an investigator in a taped conversation. “It’s absolutely horrendous.”

The 39-year-old woman, one of Magana’s most frequent victims, testified that after Magaña found out about one of her complaints, he threatened to have her child taken away and kill her. After ripping off her pants, Officer Magana held his city-issued gun to her vagina and said, “If you tell anyone anything about me, I’ll blow you up from the inside out,” she testified.

Asked about the sworn testimony that he ignored the complaint from the sexual assault victim, Kerns stepped away from the microphone at the press conference and stood behind Ruiz. Ruiz said that they would not answer the question. “We’re trying to move forward.”

After the press conference, Kerns said, “I’m not going to answer the question.”

The city of Eugene drew harsh criticism for failing to investigate or discipline fellow officers for failing to act to stop Magaña’s rape crime wave, despite years of complaints. The city paid $5 million to settle victims’ lawsuits. 

Kerns praised his fellow Eugene police officers as “some of the finest people I’ve known.”

But Michelle Burrows, an attorney for one of Magaña’s repeated victims, wrote that it is “stunning” and “damning” that so many of those EPD officers failed to act. Citing sworn depositions, Burrows alleged that Magaña had nearly 45 sex abuse victims in all and that 23 different officers had knowledge of 15 complaints by 15 different women but did nothing. “In some respects their willful disregard of what was obvious is just as bad” as Magaña’s crimes, Burrows wrote.

When a manager wants change, they often bring in someone from the outside. Ruiz said in a prepared statement that having served a quarter century in the department, “Pete is the right person to build stability.”

The Eugene police union praised the Kerns appointment in The Register-Guard. But police union members accused Kerns of lying at an arbitration hearing last year in denying that he told officers at a meeting to put their “boot up the butt” of suspected criminals, the R-G reported. 

Ruiz dismissed the complaint after a private investigator found that many officers’ accounts of the statement were inconsistent. In appointing Kerns, Ruiz said city management has a “tenuous” relationship with the union. 

Asked if the department he has worked in almost all his adult life needs change, Kerns said, “In some ways; not entirely.” Kerns said, “we want to strengthen our leadership and accountability,” and he called for a “more open” department.

Eugene’s new Police Auditor Mark Gissiner said his relationship with Kerns in the last month has been “good.” He said he’ll hide any disputes he has with the chief. “They’re not going to be public disagreements.”

Kerns said he wants to engage the community in helping to solve crime. But for decades the EPD has rebuffed the community-oriented policing reform long embraced by other police departments by claiming it doesn’t have enough money. That continued last week at the Kerns announcement.

A citizen called for more policing downtown, complaining that officers had “walked away from two fights.”

The problem is not “having enough officers,” Kerns replied.

Eugene taxpayers spend $43 million a year on the Eugene Police Department. Eugene’s police budget is about one-third higher than Salem’s, a city with a similar population and overall crime rate.

Ruiz said he thinks Kerns will be able to change the department to “maximize the resources” the EPD already has. “It’s not going to all be about I need more, more, more.”

Kerns and Ruiz claimed that Eugene has a rising crime rate. But according to the FBI, Eugene’s violent crime rate has fallen 53 percent and its property crime rate has fallen 43 percent since 1997, making Eugene one of the safest cities in the nation. 

But arguing for more money, Kerns declined to celebrate the success of the department in reducing crime. He speculated that the FBI may have changed the way it counts crime in Eugene. “That might be why.”

Ruiz said the city has a goal of increasing diversity in a police department long accused of racial profiling. But Ruiz said all of the four finalists for the job in his secretive national hiring process were white men.