Two and a half years after Kaylee Sawyer was killed, her Christmas stocking hangs on the mantle at her family’s house in Bend.
“She’s always been the center of attention whether she liked it or not. She kind of had the spotlight when she’d walk into a room,” her dad, Jamie Sawyer, said.
He’s just beginning a painful campaign to champion Kaylee’s Law, a bill he hopes will honor his daughter’s life by limiting and defining the powers of security guards in Oregon.
Sawyer moves through the world differently since Kaylee was raped and murdered by a campus public safety officer at Central Oregon Community College. She was 23. In the aftermath, Sawyer said he lived in a fog.
“You’re basically retraining yourself and your mind on how to deal with something incomprehensible. You couldn’t leave the house go to work without having a panic attack. You can’t go to the grocery without thinking everybody’s looking at you, without wanting to shake people and go, ‘Do you know what I’ve been going through?’ And you just want to go back home and hide.”
But in time, he decided healing from the loss meant facing how Kaylee died. It started with law enforcement officials confronting him about their concerns — concerns the killer had used police-like tools and an air of authority to abduct Kaylee, powers a campus public safety officer shouldn’t have.
“We went from grief … to being pretty furious when I started finding out the facts surrounding the murder,” Sawyer said. “This wasn’t a random act, there wasn’t an accident. And because of the circumstances around it, we have the ability to do something about it.”
‘Guidance Everybody Needs’
Kaylee’s Law would regulate important questions for all private security providers, said Aaron Knott, legislative director for the Oregon Attorney General’s Office.
“If you seize evidence, what are your obligations? If you arrest somebody, how quickly do you have to notify the police? That’s guidance everybody needs,” Knott said.
Community colleges in Oregon aren’t allowed to operate police departments, even though college security officers often respond to crime reports. College boards set administrative rules for how guards, who aren’t trained to the same standards as police officers, can enforce traffic and parking controls.
Kaylee’s Law would make sure new security hires are more thoroughly vetted, and that their uniforms and vehicles would look different from police officers; and they wouldn’t have authority to arrest people, retain evidence or investigate crimes.
Still Under Scrutiny
But even after changing the look of the campus security force and signing a new agreement with police in the wake of Kaylee’s murder, COCC is under intense scrutiny for how it handles crime reports.
In August, an audit by the Bend Police Department revealed details of allegedly botched investigations by COCC staff into numerous crimes against women, including a serial stalking and theft case that went on for a year, during which time at least 13 women were targeted.
According to Bend Police Chief Jim Porter, the college continues to send the police heavily redacted reports, hampering investigators. (Here’s an example.)
“It thwarts our ability to investigate crimes and it makes the college look like a black hole, like there’s no crime,” Porter said.
BPD auditors also found evidence the college is vastly underreporting crime on campus. It concluded women are disproportionately the victims of these crimes, “and the security unit, by actions and inaction, can be seen as contributing to this trend.”
In a written statement, COCC president Shirley Metcalf said the police department’s claims are not true. The college’s lawyer sent the police a response to the audit stating it contains “significant factual inaccuracies.” In her statement to OPB, Metcalf pointed to progress overall.
“We have updated our uniforms and vehicles to make them clearly identifiable to the public and have updated and modified some of our operational practices. In addition, work has been undertaken to improve the screening process for future CPS recruitments,” she wrote.
Peter Ostrovsky, COCC’s head of public safety, said “crime on campus is very low,” and that he’s primarily focused on crime prevention education and disaster preparedness efforts.
“If there is a crime that occurs on campus we’re going to be calling the police for them to investigate it. Now, the response from the police may be, well we’re not going to send an officer, just file an online report,” he said.
As for Kaylee’s Law, Ostrovsky said he’s wary it will create unfunded mandates, like training that isn’t paid through state funding or require dash cams and GPS monitoring in patrol cars.
Privacy As A Concern
In a COCC dorm room during finals week, three 19-year-old students said privacy is their main issue with campus public safety officers. These women don’t want to use their real names because they said the guards have searched them before.
“They made it seem like they’re more out to get people in trouble than make us feel safe,” Sabrina, one of the students, said.
Her roommate Mary chimed in that one night last year they were all hanging out in their room, “and then as soon as we stopped talking, we heard like a huge bang on the door, and who was it, what was it?”
It was a security guard. Mary said he wanted to look in their bags, and then, he repeated something the students had just been talking about, behind a closed door.
“By him making that comment. I knew he’d been listening through the door,” said Mary.
They’re keenly aware all of the patrol guards at COCC are men. In the last eight years, college records show just one woman has worked in that role, for just one year. Megan, another one of the three students interviewed, said she’d like that dynamic to change.
“The other problem is if I can’t confide in campus public safety and I don’t think they’re powerful enough to help me with a situation, then it’s not making me feel at home,” she added.