Even perpetrators are entitled to public records

Last week, the Portland City Council was considering whether to challenge the Clark County Sheriff’s Office plan to release a 1992 Portland Police report on child sex abuse, in response to a public records request. At one point in debating the unusual request, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman asked City Attorney Tracy Reeve who was seeking the information.

Tellingly, she hedged. “We believe based on the information available to us” that it’s the perpetrator of the sex abuse, Reeve said. Not surprisingly, the response provoked a visceral reaction. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz grimaced, noting, “that’s even worse,” before the council unanimously voted to challenge the record’s release unless Clark County makes redactions allowed by Oregon law in addition to those under Washington state law.

That hedging? Turns out that the person seeking the report is a Multnomah County public defender, representing the perpetrator on a current charge of failing to register as a sex offender.

The distinction is important. Telling commissioners — and the public — that the requester is the perpetrator is an easy way to turn sentiment against disclosure. But hearing that it’s a record sought as part of an attorney’s efforts to prepare a legal defense would have reminded everyone in the room that police reports are official government documents used in legal forums. Withholding such records should be allowed only for reasons that outweigh the public’s interest. As unsympathetic as a convicted sex offender is, the city shouldn’t be seeking to block a defendant from accessing a public record that may possibly be relevant to his defense.

Reeve, in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, defended the omission. “I do not believe that is a material difference,” she wrote, adding that “the attorney is requesting the records on behalf of the perpetrator.” It’s material if you value transparency. The city attorney, transparently, does not.

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