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.

READ IT: District attorney’s order 

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.

City officials asserted records about the matter should be kept confidential because Bellshaw wasn’t disciplined and because most of the records had been given to the city attorney’s office.

But Bellshaw faced no discipline. He wasn’t cleared, but instead he quit before an investigation could be finished.

“A professional standards investigation was opened, but was not completed due to the unavailability of qualified investigators and Mr. Bellshaw’s retirement,” according to Assistant City Attorney Michelle Teed.

Teed made that disclosure in responding to a petition that Salem Reporter filed Aug. 8 with District Attorney Paige Clarkson, asking her under state law to order the city to turn over the records.  Salem Reporter sought the release the records of any official misconduct complaints filed against Bellshaw and any records compiled for an internal investigation of the former deputy chief. 

READ IT: Salem Reporter’s petition for disclosure 

“There is no need or value to the public seeing concerns about which no findings were made,” she wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to the district attorney’s office.

Teed also justified the secrecy as necessary to protect the privacy of city employees and because they were off limits because of the attorney-client privilege. 

READ IT: City response to petition 

Salem Reporter challenged that justification, writing that the actions the city seeks to protect relate to public employees reporting what they believed was misconduct, and urging that attorney-client privilege only be applied to legal advice.

READ IT: Salem Reporter’s rebuttal 

The district attorney’s office denied the petition Monday morning. The news organization can challenge the decision by suing the city in Marion County Circuit Court, a costly and lengthy process.

Queen in her denial said the city’s professional standards file for Bellshaw included two files “concerning separate matters.” 

Salem Reporter on Monday asked Interim City Manager Kristin Retherford and Police Chief Trevor Womack why the city gave $53,500 to a ranking city employee who was under investigation.

“The city has previously responded on this issue,” said Retherford, copying Womack on the email. The chief did not respond.

Explaining Bellshaw’s bonus pay, Knox Busch wrote in an Aug. 5 email that, “Deputy Chief Bellshaw was a long-term employee of Salem Police Department and provided decades of service to the city and community. The decision to separate was mutual, and the severance provided is consistent with that provided when any long-tenured employee separates through mutual agreement, and was intended to allow him to transition post-separation.”

Salem Reporter has sought records related to the Bellshaw matter since July 12, when the news organization requested his separation agreement with the city.

The city did release that agreement, which showed that Bellshaw was paid an extra $53,500 in taxpayer money when he retired from the Salem police. The document bound both parties to keep quiet about the matter. 

According to the document, signed by Bellshaw on Jan. 31 and by then-City Manager Steve Powers on Feb. 1, Bellshaw wanted to “voluntarily retire” as deputy police chief. 

Bellshaw declined to discuss the agreement when contacted by Salem Reporter on July 27, saying that he retired under what he described as “a private settlement between the city and I.”

The bonus was paid with money from the Salem Police Department general fund, according to Courtney Knox Busch, Salem’s strategic initiatives manager. The general fund pays for most routine city services including police, fire, municipal court and library and parks operations, and is largely funded through property taxes.

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.