If anyone thought that a new police chief, Trevor Womack, would usher in an era of transparency and openness for the Salem Police Department, that thought needs to be dumped in the trashcan of unmet expectations.
Last month I described two examples of the department hiding facts from the public. The people trying to lift the lid on police secrecy are experienced journalists: Joe Douglass and Ardeshir Tabrizian.
When Douglass hit roadblocks from the Salem Police Department with his public record request for information related to communications between police officers and the Proud Boys militia group prior to a 2021 gun rights rally at Riverfront Park, he appealed the department's refusal to provide certain records to the Marion County District Attorney office.
A Deputy District Attorney rejected the appeal, showing how tight knit police and district attorneys can be when they want to join forces in keeping things secret.
Likewise, the Salem Reporter, where Tabrizian works, appealed the refusal of the police department to provide public records related to a $53,500 payment to former deputy chief Steve Bellshaw. Here's excerpts from yesterday's Salem Reporter story, "DA backs Salem's effort to keep police misconduct files secret."
The city of Salem paid a departing police official an extra $53,500 while he faced a city misconduct investigation that was never finished.
But city officials are keeping records confidential about the matter, and the Marion County District Attorney’s Office Monday sided with city officials, concluding there was insufficient public interest to require disclosure.
Deputy District Attorney Amy Queen notified Salem Reporter that she would allow the city to keep secret records sought by the news organization detailing the allegations against former Deputy Chief Steve Bellshaw.
That decision means the public isn’t allowed information about misconduct allegations against Bellshaw that the city never fully investigated.
The city earlier this year struck a deal with Bellshaw and both sides tried to keep that deal from the public. It was disclosed only after Salem Reporter sought legal recourse to force its disclosure. Under that agreement, Bellshaw declared his intent to retire but the city also agreed to pay him $53,500 for reasons it has yet to fully explain.
Subsequently, the Oregon Department of Professional Safety Standards and Training, the state’s police licensing agency, opened an investigation of Bellshaw on May 9. It did so based on the city’s report to the agency that Salem officials had a pending investigation of Bellshaw when he left.
What a lame excuse from the District Attorney's office: "insufficient public interest to require disclosure."
I'm pretty damn sure that if Salem citizens were asked if they wanted to know why city officials gave Bellshaw a gift of $53,500 from the Police Department budget when he was being investigated for misconduct, they'd say, Absolutely, tell us what went on here.
But Chief Womack wants to keep this secret, probably because it would make the Salem Police Department look bad if the facts of Bellshaw's shady retirement came to light.
Here's what Womack and other city officials are forgetting: as the saying goes, often it isn't the crime, but the coverup that makes public employees look bad. Citizens deserve to know what Bellshaw was accused of, and why he was given the $53,500 as a going-away gift from the Salem Police Department.