Salem records over troubled cop to remain confidential, district attorney rules

A row of Salem Police Department vehicles parked at Salem City Hall pictured in the winter. (Caleb Wolf/Special to Salem Reporter)

For four months, a Salem Police Department officer was assigned to stay home with pay because his superiors weren’t sure he was fit for duty.

The public won’t learn what the city did from the time a supervisor took Seth Thayres’ badge to the day he was arrested in Portland on drug and theft charges.

On Monday, Marion County Deputy District Attorney Amy Queen denied a petition from Salem Reporter seeking city records about Thayres, who says he struggled with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder for at least a year-and-a-half while patrolling the city.

Queen said in a public records order that the city could withhold the records from the public to protect Thayres’ privacy and limit disclosure of internal investigations and avoid breaching attorney-client privilege. The news operation sought records about what the city had said was a “fitness for duty evaluation” of Thayres.

“There is an insufficient showing that the public interest in these records outweighs the city’s or the employees’ need for confidentiality,” Queen wrote.

Thayres’ arrest first became public when the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office issued a press release about the arrest of the Salem officer on Feb. 7 in Portland. Salem city officials soon followed with their own public announcement, sharing that Thayres had been on leave.

Days later, Thayres wrote a public Facebook post describing his mental health issues. He resigned his $70,000-a-year job soon after his arrest.

City officials couldn’t provide any city policy or procedure outlining a fitness evaluation, and acknowledged to Queen that there wasn’t one.

Deputy City Attorney Natasha Zimmerman said the city has a “substantial interest in keeping a personnel investigation confidential.”

“Because it was not clear what the source of the troubling behavior was and what the possible outcomes might be as a result of the investigation, it is in the city’s interest to be able to credibly offer confidentiality to the employee,” Zimmerman wrote in a letter to Queen.

Thayres was arrested in connection to the theft of $30,000-worth of computers and digital video production equipment from businesses in Portland. He is facing charges of first-degree theft and methamphetamine possession. He pleaded not guilty, but on Tuesday he was indicted on 15 additional criminal charges.

Thayres said that during his Salem career he was largely responsible for patrolling the northeastern neighborhoods. He was hired August 2014. In March 2017, he and two other officers fought with an armed robber to keep him from reaching a handgun in his waistband.

Thayres told Salem Reporter that after the struggle “I felt something change.”

“A fight for your life is an experience unlike any other,” Thayres wrote in his Facebook post, noting he hadn’t felt normal since.

Compared with the “really successful” career he said he had until that point, Thayres described in an interview how he struggled with depressive and manic episodes, got pulled over for reckless driving on his way to work and lashed out at least once at a fellow police officer.

He worked for Salem police for nearly 18 months after the struggle before he was put on administrative leave.

According to Zimmerman, the city in September had “developed concerns that there might be issues affecting Thayres’ ability to perform the duties of his position as a police officer.”

The district attorney’s decision underscores the continuing tension between privacy for public employees and the public’s ability to learn how government officials are performing.

Shasta Kearns Moore, a journalist and president of Open Oregon, a nonprofit focused on education of the state’s public records law, said the city is right to keep certain documents or parts of documents confidential.

“There are certainly interests in the privacy of public servants, including health information,” Moore said. “But the documents (requested) also contain information about how this situation was handled by his superiors and co-workers and that is clearly in the public interest.”

Moore said people in jobs like teaching and policing are held to higher standards. She said Thayres’ case raises questions about Salem Police Department’s role in working with officers on paid leave or helping them with post-traumatic stress disorder.

She added that public currently only has Thayres’ account of events.

Thayres’ two previous employers in Florida released to Salem Reporter 347 pages of records, including annual evaluations, emails, certificates, and records of internal investigations into reported drug use.

City officials did not respond to questions asking who made the decision to deny the release of all its records.

Salem has already showed a willingness to fight to keep records confidential, as detailed in December by Salem Reporter.

In 2015, the city denied the Woodburn Independent access to arrest records of a man later convicted of sexually abusing a child. That denial was upheld by the Marion County District Attorney’s Office and a Marion County Circuit Court judge after the paper’s parent organization, Pamplin Media Group, sued.

Three years later, however, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled the city had to turn over the records and the Supreme Court didn’t take the city’s challenge of that decision.

The city’s action in that case will prove costly. The appeals court ordered the city to pay $34,155 for Pamplin’s attorney fees. Additional payments could be ordered separately in Marion County Circuit Court, as Oregon law entitles those who prevail in legal fights over public records to recover costs.

Mayor Chuck Bennett said Tuesday that he agreed the city must weigh privacy, but that “at a certain point the public’s need to know supersedes the inclination to protect records from disclosure.”

Bennett said he didn’t have any insight into Salem’s legal reasoning in the Thayres matter.

When asked what role the public plays in monitoring Salem’s police officers, Bennett noted that people can file complaints with Salem Police Department at any point, and that there is a seven-member Community Police Review Board to provide oversight.

Bennett also pointed to the city’s annual survey of residents, with the most recent edition showing residents held police, fire, ambulance and 9-1-1 services as the highest regarded services.

“Our police rate extraordinarily high in this community,” he said.

City Manager Steve Powers didn’t respond to questions.

City spokesman Kenny Larson wrote in an email that the city has “the delicate task of balancing the need for transparency against the rights to privacy for our staff, and in some cases the public who we serve.”

Larson wrote that the public can alert the city whenever a person witnesses police misconduct and that complaints are investigated.

“The Salem Police Department has a sergeant whose primary responsibility is to conduct internal affairs investigations, on all potential violations, including administrative issues,” Larson wrote. “If the police department feels that a violation may be criminal, the department will have another law enforcement agency conduct the investigation so as to reduce any perceived or possible biases.”

Investigations are reviewed through the police chain of command, and sometimes the city’s legal and human resource departments are consulted, Larson wrote. Investigations can also be reviewed by the Community Police Review Board.

“The systems and processes outlined above, in addition to the upstanding job our police officers do every day, is why the community we serve has trust that not only the police department but the city as a whole is ensuring appropriate behavior from our police officers,” he wrote. “We have worked hard to develop a trusting relationship with our community, as we recognize that only through maintaining trust can we truly make our city safe.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.