(AP) A Portland newspaper is entitled to see internal police records of the investigation and discipline of a police officer who killed an unarmed woman during a traffic stop two years ago, the state Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel unanimously said the city must turn over documents sought by The Oregonian following disciplinary action against officer Scott McCollister, who fatally shot Kendra James in May 2003 in a case that provoked racial unrest in Portland.
The appeals court upheld Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk and the Multnomah County Circuit Court, both of which said the newspaper was entitled to the documents under the state public records law.
The ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Derrick Foxworth, the current police chief, argued that disclosure of the internal records would have a “chilling effect on the free flow of frank, uninhibited advice and self-critical observations” in the city police bureau.
The appeals court said it had examined the records and disagreed with the city.
The documents “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,” the court said in an opinion by Judge David Schuman.
The Oregonian welcomed the court’s ruling.
“Our readers have a serious and legitimate interest in the performance of police officers in this case, and the ruling recognizes that,” said Therese Bottomly, managing editor for news.
James, who was black, was passenger in a rented car that was pulled over for a traffic violation on May 5, 2003. One officer took the driver out of the car, and James got into the driver’s seat, police say.
McCollister said his body was partly in the rental vehicle and he shot 21-year-old James because she started to drive away and he felt his life was threatened.
McCollister was suspended without pay for five and one-half months after Police Chief Mark Kroeker concluded that the shooting followed police bureau guidelines and state law but that McCollister’s actions leading up to the shooting were tactically unsound.
The police union protested the discipline as unduly harsh.
A grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by McCollister.
Portland’s black community called for the officer’s firing.
Kroeker resigned in August 2003 and was replaced by Foxworth.
The records sought by the newspaper included memos from McCollister’s supervisor and material from an internal review committee that probed the incident. The appeals court noted that the open records law is tilted in favor of disclosure.
It is beyond dispute, the court said, that “the public’s and the police bureau’s need to have complete confidence that a thorough and unbiased inquiry has occurred is most urgent and compelling in “high profile” cases where a police officer has killed a citizen in the line of duty.”