Getting the Numbers

Eugene police wanted $139,132.50 to let EW examine the files

For our story on arrests and citations of homeless people for minor crimes, we used a database from the Eugene Municipal Court. The Municipal Court handles violations and misdemeanors within the city of Eugene. More serious charges are filed in Lane County Circuit Court.

The Municipal Court released data under the Oregon public records law. From it, we identified 1,834 individuals who were charged with committing non-driving violations or misdemeanors by Eugene police in 2016.

Court records list a mailing address for each defendant — the most current address known to court staff for the defendant. We focused on 2016 cases and the most recent charge against each defendant.

EW identified 170 people in the court database as homeless or lacking a permanent address. To reach this number, we counted people in the court database listed as transient; people whose mailing address was a motel or other temporary housing; and those whose mail went to social service agency or homeless shelter.

We identified another 346 people for whom the court listed “general delivery” as an address. With general delivery, any mailings from the courts would go to a post office, where the recipient can claim it. U.S. Postal Service regulations say general delivery is specifically “for transients and customers not permanently located.”

Municipal Court staff objected to our automatically characterizing defendants listed under “general delivery” in the court database as transient or those lacking a permanent address.

The court staff said the “general delivery” designation did not necessarily reflect the information a defendant gave to police, and that the designation doesn’t automatically mean the defendant is transient. Yet the court officials could not provide an estimate as to how often they used the “general delivery” designation when they knew the defendant was not a transient.

Therefore we were faced with determining how many people in the court database as “general delivery” were homeless or lacked a permanent address.

We chose at random 100 defendants who had been charged by the Eugene Police Department in 2016 and who had “general delivery” listed in the court database. We examined the file documents in the most recent case for each defendant. The court charged us $97.94 to let us look at the files.

Our sample found that, in 85 percent of the cases, the defendant fit our definition of transient. In these cases, legal documents or the police officer writing the ticket indicated that the defendant was transient, lacked an address, or listed a social service agency or homeless shelter in 2016.

In our sample, we didn’t count cases in which the defendants, police or other court records provided no address information. In doing so, we are underestimating the actual rate. Nonetheless, we applied this conservative rate to calculate the number of defendants with a “general delivery” listing who are transient.

By our conservative estimate, at least 471 out of 1,834 people cited  or arrested for minor crimes were homeless in 2016 — around 25.3 percent.  The actual rate falls between 24.2 and 26.4 percent based on our sampling method and a 95 percent confidence level.

We wanted to also use information pulled directly from EPD reports and tickets. And we tried to do so.

In April, we filed a request under the Oregon public records law, asking the Eugene police for computer data collected from all tickets issued by their officers from 2014 through 2016.

In May, the Eugene police declined to provide the computer data as we had requested. Instead, the police told us we would need to examine the actual paper tickets and case files — more than 37,000 of them. We would be allowed to examine the files if the police pulled each file by hand, one by one, and only if we paid the police department’s costs for providing the documents.

The bill for this service? $139,132.50.

And that’s after the police gave us the 25 percent discount they routinely offer to all members of the news media.

We declined to pay, and we are working to have the Eugene police release data we originally sought in our public records request.