The city of Bend is currently suing a racial justice activist. It’s a legal fight over who should pay for access to public records. Some of the records show how police and other city leaders reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement last year.
City officials insist the lawsuit isn’t about overturning a recent legal decision ordering it to provide an activist with more than 6,000 emails and texts sent by Bend police and other city leaders.
“It’s not about the records themselves. It’s about anyone making extremely broad requests and the burden that places on the city structure and system,” said Bend’s attorney Mary Winters.
But a group of racial justice activists claim they are being treated differently than others who seek records, and that access to government transparency should be an essential service in a city where police oversight happens behind closed doors.
Winters said the records at stake are being released in weekly batches now, even as the city takes the activist who requested them, Mike Satcher, to court to recover the $3,600 fee it charged him.
Satcher, 42, said to understand the roots of this conflict, you have to go back to last summer, when groups of mostly white people turned out to oppose social justice activists in Central Oregon.
“We refer to ourselves as safety volunteers,” said the U.S. army veteran from Sisters, who is white. Last summer, Satcher began volunteering as a bodyguard for people of color engaging in protests.
“George Floyd was murdered and like so many other white people, I had to wake up to the reality of what that meant,” he said.
He joined a group known as the Central Oregon Peacekeepers, which self-describes on its Facebook page as “safety volunteers, [who] identify violent counter-protesters, and research public figures.”
“I think at this point, all of us have been punched at least once,” Satcher said.
Video from a Bend park in October shows Satcher looking down at his cellphone when a man who’d been at a pro-Trump rally slugs him in the side of the head. Moments later, a different Trump rally attendee points a gun at several people in the park.
The moment catalyzed criticism of the Bend police department, by activists who saw discrepancies between how officers at the scene reacted to supporters of President Trump, versus those supportive of Black Lives Matter.
Related: Deschutes County DA announces charges for Bend protest violence, but tensions remain
Before the clash in Bend, Prineville police officers had arrested Satcher for pepper spraying someone at a protest outside the Crook County Courthouse. Satcher is set to answer for charges he assaulted the man and interfered with police at a trial later this year.
Related: In rural Oregon, threats and backlash follow racial justice protests
Central Oregon Peacekeepers president Luke Richter is a 29-year-old Afro-Latino man from Bend who says the group’s mission has expanded to providing assistance to people experiencing houselessness.
“People deserve to have someone willing to stand up to the things that are wrong in the system,” said Richter.
Last August, he live streamed for thousands of viewers as he helped delay an immigration arrest in progress, by planting his body in front of a bus.
“We’re just here to stand up for marginalized communities. We know one of the best ways to do so is to document everything that happens, especially when it comes to policing and city officials,” Richter said.
He and Satcher argue that local police have failed to protect people who criticize the city and its law enforcement. The Peacekeepers maintain an often confrontational social media presence, where they excoriate officials and private citizens for racist behaviors.
“We’re angry because people like me are getting killed,” Richter said. “We’re rightfully angry. Everybody says that it’s a ‘cancel culture’ type thing, but I fully expect to be held accountable for things that I say.”
Now, the activists say the city of Bend, where being nice is a brand, is handling their public records requests differently than others, such as those made by professional journalists.
Under state law, the city has the discretion to waive fees for public records deemed to be in the public interest. But, Bend decided not to do this for two of the Peacekeepers’ recent requests. In January, the city declined to give a member of the group a fee waiver for just $30. Then in February, the city denied a waiver for Satcher’s large request. In both cases, the activists appealed to Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, arguing the records are important to the public interest. Hummel found the charges unreasonable, and ordered the city to produce the records for free.
“The public interest in the subject matter of this request, at this moment in time, is immense and of significant importance,” Hummel wrote in his decision last month.
Last year, Hummel publicly suggested that Bend police officers were monitoring social justice activists like Richter and Satcher online, but did not appear to be tracking far right groups that were also organizing events. His comments motivated the Peacekeepers to pursue access to thousands of police records.
Bend Police Chief Mike Krantz said Hummel got it wrong, and that his officers have not surveilled social justice activists.
Hummel’s decisions in favor of the Peacekeepers’ records requests raise broader questions about the amount of time and resources Bend budgets to ensure transparency.
“The two facts most important in my analysis were the fact the City devotes only two hours of staff time per week to process public records cases, and that the fee quoted in this case was arbitrary, as evidenced by the City quoting another hourly rate in a similar case,” the district attorney wrote.
Bend is asking a circuit court judge to intervene on its behalf, stating that regular records requests could hypothetically come flooding in if Hummel’s decision is upheld.
“Let’s say it was a group like Q-Anon, or one looking at handgun regulations. There’s lots of interested groups who aren’t necessarily nonprofits, who might want extensive record requests,” city attorney Winters said.
Oregon’s public records law requires everyone to be treated the same, she argues. Records requests take a lot of public resources, while funding the work isn’t something the Bend City Council has prioritized. Winters said the city agreed to reduce the fees by 25% for Satcher, even though his request reportedly will take more than 60 hours of staff time to complete. She said Satcher refused to narrow the search terms as part of the negotiation.
Every member of the City Council said they supported taking the activist to court to recoup costs.
“It’s really about the precedent of, what level are we required to waive fees for such large requests in the future?” said Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell, who showed support to Richter and other activists that tried to slow the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement buses last year.
Councilor Rita Schenkelberg was elected in 2020 after running on a left-leaning platform to champion diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I want money to go to the houseless community. I want money to go to building housing. I want money to go to an independent review board of the chief of police,” Schenkelberg said.
Hundreds of records requested by Satcher have already been released. They offer a window into the city’s institutional culture during a tumultuous year filled with protests and political violence. Some of the documents show discrepancies between how police officials communicated about a high profile event publicly versus internally.
When Richter attempted to stop the immigration arrests last August, he inspired hundreds of people to join him in front of that bus, leading to a standoff with federal law enforcement.
While Bend officers wrote in their reports that the crowd was “not aggressive,” the situation became significantly more tense when officers from the Crisis Emergency Response Team, or CERT, showed up on scene dressed in riot gear. Police Chief Krantz explained that response at the time by saying the officers had been training nearby and simply responded to a call for all available officers.
Records obtained by the Peacekeepers raise questions about that framing, however, as one report suggests a police lieutenant specifically called for CERT to respond.
Other records show how the Peacekeepers repeatedly contacted the city about instances of perceived bias. In one incident last August, a white bus driver was not arrested after he allegedly choked a Black rider for refusing to wear shoes on a bus. A police press release shows how the Bend police officers who responded laid blame solely with the Black rider, but prosecutors later found the white driver initiated physical aggression.
Krantz said he supports transparency, but raised concerns that without context, public records requests can lead to misinformation.
“Unfortunately, public records don’t tell entire stories,” he said. “Generally, the idea is if you request a whole bunch of records and don’t have context about them, you can make up whatever you want around it.”
Before coming to Bend last year, Krantz was an assistant chief with the Portland Police Bureau, where officers have faced scrutiny over friendly texts with the leader of a far right group. In September, Krantz weathered more criticism from the Peacekeepers and others after he did not sign on to a written statement denouncing white supremacy, circulated by 38 other local officials and clergy members. Krantz said he wanted to leave the statement making to elected officials.
The city of Bend’s communication director Anne Aurand helped respond to the backlash, editing statements by the chief, and shaping messaging by the city’s elected leadership.
“I’m just getting irritated by the amount of time and thought we spent responding to inaccurate and/or unfair posts started by the Central Oregon Peacekeepers,” Aurand wrote to then-city councilor Bruce Abernethy.
Professional reporters are trained in ethics and generally strive for accuracy and fairness, she said in another email addressing the Peacekeepers’ claims.
But when it comes to making public records available, state law doesn’t make a distinction between professionals and citizen watchdogs, said Oregon’s public records advocate Todd Albert.
“This law is one of disclosure, not confidentiality,” said Albert, a state employee who mediates disputes over public records access and fees. On paper, he called Oregon law very welcoming for people seeking records. But in practice, many public bodies aren’t funded to accommodate large requests, so they shift the burden of fees on to requesters.
Bend funds multiple positions in its communications department, while budgeting less than one full time equivalent employee for processing public records requests.
“I think in Oregon it’s high time that we had a conversation around fees and consider revamping our system in a way that makes it more accessible and equitable,” Albert said.
In Satcher’s case, Bend did not request the state advocate’s services before filing a lawsuit. Satcher maintains the activists shouldn’t have to pay for government transparency.
“How can they argue that the cost of these records is more of a burden on the city than it is on unpaid social justice activists?” he said.
Years before he joined the Peacekeepers, Satcher was wounded in combat. When pressed about what happened, the words come slowly.
“On April 17, 2005 in Ramadi, Iraq, We had a rocket and mortar attack. I got hurt. Some other people died,” Satcher said.
Now, he sees his work with social justice groups as another way to serve the country.
“I think making the government uncomfortable is a deeply patriotic thing to do,” he said.
If a judge sides with Bend officials, Satcher could owe the city thousands of dollars for the records he’s already gotten. He says a civil rights attorney took his case pro bono.
Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect which month protestors in Bend stalled an immigration arrest. OPB regrets the error.