Being a reporter takes a number of various skills and attributes, but perhaps most important of all is a healthy curiosity.
That’s how I get most of my story ideas, anyways. I’ll see something that piques my interest in some way, and soon will set out to learn more about it. Such was the case with a story I wrote that ran Sunday about a drastic reduction of space in the Douglas County jail, and what that shortage means for local police and the community at large.
It all started with the daily police logs we get from Sgt. Jeff Eichenbusch, who is the Public Information Officer for the Roseburg Police Department. Each weekday, Eichenbush sends out a log of police activity from the previous day, or on Mondays, from the previous weekend.
Public safety is not my area of coverage; I’m the projects editor at The News-Review and I also cover business and keep an eye on Rosburg city hall. But the police logs are intriguing to me. They unveil a part of life that few of us witness or probably understand, but at the same time affects many of our daily lives.
The recent spate of vandalism downtown, including threats against the president, are examples of that.
Each log typically has a dozen fields, including time, date and location of an incident, case #, name and ages of individuals involved and the disposition of the case. As the effects of COVID-19 began to spread, with businesses closing, I noticed a change in the police logs. People who in the past would have gone to jail, were now being cited and released. My curiosity kicked in and I had to know more.
I went back six months and read every daily police log Eichenbusch sent out, and started a tally. It became apparent that over time the ratio of people taken to jail to those cited and released changed dramatically. The result is a situation like you had this past weekend, where RPD encountered 54 people who they accused of committing crimes, and cited and released all but seven of them.
Next came the research. I scoured every story I could find on the effect COVID-19 has had on jails, and what steps jails in turn were taking to address those effects. It became apparent that this was a national issue, with jails (and prisons, but that’s a separate story) caught in the squeeze of trying to house inmates while also complying with social distancing and other measures required to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Jails were drastically cutting their inmate populations. In Oregon, jail populations were down 45% from pre-COVID-19 counts, according to one story by Oregon Public Broadcasting (https://www.opb.org/news/article/jail-population-oregon-covid-19-coronavirus/).
I also came across a survey done by a group called Oregon Disability Rights, with the help of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association. ODR sent questionnaires to all three dozen jails in the state asking various questions, including what their pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 inmate count averages were.
More than two dozen of the jail commanders responded to the survey (https://droregon.org/wp-content/uploads/Oregon-Jails-A-Look-Inside-26-County-Jails-04-30-2020.pdf), including Douglas County’s jail commander, Lt. Mike Root. Root indicated that the average daily inmate at the Douglas County jail was down by an average of more than 60% compared to before COVID-19.
Next I called people to help fill in the blanks. Jason Myers, executive director of the sheriffs’ association, explained how jail commanders met with local judges, police, district attorneys and public defenders to come up with reasonable protocols to provide more space at the jails and maintain public safety.
DRO attorney Sarah Radcliffe told me about the criminalization of homelessness and mental illness, and how this reduction in the state’s jail population may lead to meaningful criminal justice reforms.
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin explained some of the changes implemented in the jail to protect inmates and staff, including greater spacing among inmates, more deep cleaning and the elimination of most face-to-face meetings.
Eichenbusch talked about how the situation at the jail might impact an officer’s decision on whether someone goes to jail or is cited and released.
As reporters, in these types of stories we typically seek to hold someone, or some agency, accountable, for whatever problems our reporting uncovered. Someone who dropped the ball, or a breakdown in the system somewhere. That did not appear to be the case here. I didn’t find any egregious mistakes or poor decisions made.
As Myers told me, everyone was doing the best they could under an unexpected and unprecedented situation.
If there was a culprit in all this, it would have to be COVID-19 itself.
However, there are sure to be reviews of how the jail situation was handled and perhaps recommendations made for moving forward. Radcliffe said her group hopes to see legislation put forth in a special legislative session tentatively planned for this summer that addresses criminal justice reform, including who to put in jail.
I’m really curious to see how all of this plays out.