PUBLIC SAFETY

A Salem deputy police chief quietly retired under an agreement. City leaders aren’t saying why

A longtime Salem Police Department official left his job in February with no public fanfare and under a separation agreement that has since triggered a state investigation.

Secrecy surrounds the circumstances of the retirement of Deputy Chief Steven Bellshaw after 32 years.

City officials have so far not publicly released the separation agreement – and won’t say what the agreement cost the city, if anything.

More than two weeks have elapsed since Salem Reporter on July 12 requested the city of Salem’s separation agreement with Bellshaw, who retired Feb. 15. 

Mayor Chuck Bennett said Wednesday he did not know the circumstances under which Bellshaw retired. Regarding the city’s delay in disclosing the agreement, he said he learned from city staff that “there may need to be some redaction.”

City spokesman John Winn initially said Wednesday he couldn’t verify the document even existed. Later that afternoon, he said in an email that information sought by Salem Reporter in fact may be contained in city documentation.

Winn on Wednesday declined to say why the agreement was arranged, its terms or the cost to the city.

“Those questions may be answered in documentation per your records request and I prefer that that information, if available, come through the proper channels,” he said.

He said the city manager is generally authorized to commit the city to separation agreements.

Police Chief Trevor Womack declined to comment.  

“Our only statement at this time is what was provided by (Winn),” he said in an email Thursday.

Bellshaw confirmed Wednesday that he retired under what he described as “a private settlement between the city and I” but declined to elaborate further on the reason for the agreement or the circumstances of his departure from the agency.

Former Salem police Deputy Chief Steven Bellshaw, right, accepts an award for historic preservation in connection with the building of a new police department headquarters in May 2019. (Salem Police Department photo)

The city has provided no indication when or if it would release the separation agreement for public review.

On Monday, July 25, Salem Reporter petitioned Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson for an order requiring the city to immediately release the agreement, arguing its release is in the public’s interest. The news organization contended the delay in disclosure was impeding that interest.

Oregon’s public records law requires government agencies to respond to public records requests within five business days and release requested information “as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay.” The city had not provided the document as of Thursday, insisting it would do so by the maximum deadline set by law – three weeks. That would give the city until Tuesday, Aug. 2, to disclose the record or cite a legal basis for keeping it secret.

Clarkson’s office is required by law to rule on a public records petition within seven business days.

Deputy District Attorney Amy Queen, who handles records matters for Clarkson, gave the city a week – until Monday, Aug. 1 – to address the petition that concerned the single document. But even then a ruling may not come in time to meet state law. Queen said she was going on vacation so a ruling may not be possible until Aug. 8. She cited a state law providing for more time in the event staff are unavailable.

Clarkson has close ties to the Salem Police Department. She is married to Jason VanMeter, who worked for 17 years as a Salem police officer before accepting a position last year as police chief of the Black Butte Ranch Police Department in Sisters. He left the department as a lieutenant.

Bellshaw’s departure was unusual for a senior commander with his longevity.

He joined the agency in 1989. He was promoted to sergeant in 1998, lieutenant in 2004 and deputy chief in 2007, according to records of the state’s police licensing agency, the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. 

A September 2019 post on the Salem Police Department’s Facebook page shows former Deputy Chief Steven Bellshaw at his police academy graduation in 1989.

Bellshaw managed the department’s support division. The Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force’s website listed him as an instructor as of Thursday. Bellshaw was paid about $160,000 annually. His final paycheck, which included two days of leave and accrued benefits payout, was $27,769, Winn said.

The Salem Police Department currently has two deputy chiefs, according to the city’s website.

The department has routinely trumpeted the retirement of other officers, such as in a 2018 press release recognizing three veteran officers’ retirement ceremony.

VanMeter’s departure from the department was announced via a department press release and social media post praising him for his years of service to Salem.

“Your contributions to this agency are vast, notable and much appreciated,” Womack wrote in the release about VanMeter’s departure.

Meanwhile, Bellshaw’s retirement came with no press release or social media posts from either the department or city.

City council agenda packets from February to the present show no mention of Bellshaw’s name or any agreement related to the departure of an employee from the police department.

The state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the agency tasked with licensing officers and investigating complaints of misconduct, opened a professional standards investigation of Bellshaw on May 9.

Agency records show Bellshaw’s officer certification lapsed May 15, meaning he is not actively working as an officer but still holds certification. In Oregon, officers’ certifications lapse if they’re not employed in law enforcement for 90 days.

When a police officer leaves an agency, the agency is required to report the departure to DPSST. Salem police wrote on its form that Bellshaw voluntarily retired with an agreement for severance pay, noting that “no investigatory work was undertaken,” said Brian Henson, DPSST’s acting director, said Thursday.

But another portion of the form asked if the separation was the result of a settlement agreement, and whether it was the result “even in part” of an active or pending investigation. Both were marked “yes,” according to Henson.

“That caused us to ask further inquiries,” he said.

Henson said the Salem police at one point confirmed they had an active investigation involving Bellshaw, which prompted his agency to open their investigation.

He said he did not have any additional information about what prompted Bellshaw’s retirement.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.