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Capital Chatter: Couple fights for 'Kaylee's Law'

Murder victim's parents press for law that will strictly regulate campus security guards.

What the Sawyer family has endured is beyond comprehension.

A community college security officer kidnapped, assaulted and murdered their 23-year-old daughter — while he was on duty and while using his college vehicle.

I'll spare readers the details. During a Legislative Days hearing this month, the Oregon House and Senate Judiciary committees were warned that the facts were stomach-churning even for veteran law enforcement professionals.

Yet there were Kaylee Sawyer's father and stepmother, Jamie and Crystal Sawyer, steadfastly testifying before those legislators, recounting what happened and urging them to achieve something good from her death by creating "Kaylee's Law."

I was moved by the Sawyers' resilience. I was touched by their testimony. I was appreciative of their willingness to talk with me beforehand.

Kaylee was full of energy and possessed a dynamic personality that connected her to all sorts of people. "If you told her she couldn't do something, she was going to prove you wrong," Jamie said. She had great plans for how she was going to help people.

In January — more than one-and-half years after Kaylee's body found in a canyon near Redmond — Edwin Lara pleaded guilty to her murder and was sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison.

Lara initially told his wife that he killed Kaylee with his campus vehicle by accident. At some point after that conversation, he drove to Salem, kidnapped a woman there and took her to California, shot a man, and carjacked a woman and her sons before being caught by the California Highway Patrol.

His wife was a Bend police officer. He was a public safety officer at Central Oregon Community College, where he had studied criminal justice.

Were it not Kaylee, he would have found another victim, Jamie said.

Jamie, Crystal and others are determined not to let that happen for someone in similar circumstances.

Kaylee was walking alone after midnight on July 24, 2016, after an argument with her boyfriend. Lara was on duty at the Bend campus. He wore what looked like a police uniform, drove what looked like a police car, offered her a ride home and put her in the backseat, which was caged.

Security guards are not police officers. They have no more arrest powers than any other citizen. On campus, they can enforce campus parking regulations but they have no authority to investigate crimes or enforce city, county, state or federal laws.

Yet the COCC Public Safety Department tried to act as if it were a police agency, according to Bend Police Chief Jim Porter. His testimony was backed up by Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel. Porter told of crimes not being reported to Bend police, and potential investigations being botched because Campus Public Safety tried to handle the cases.

Legislators were outraged by what happened to Kaylee Sawyer. They were outraged that Campus Public Safety presented itself like a police agency. Several Judiciary committee members were former police officers, including Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, who was appalled when looking at the Campus Safety website.

The proposed "Kaylee's Law" would put into statute what would seem to be common sense. It would apply to community colleges and universities with private security officers and/or special campus safety officers. The legislation would require that uniforms and vehicles not look like traditional law enforcement vehicles, that safety officers not have "stop-and-frisk" authority, that all vehicles be equipped with GPS devices to track locations and video cameras to record interactions, and that nationwide background checks be conducted for all officers before their hiring.

The bill has strong bipartisan support — the Senate Republicans and Democrats sent a joint press release about it — along with backing from the Oregon Department of Justice and law enforcement organizations.

The Judiciary committees will have heavy agendas in the 2019 Legislature. Even responsible, common-sense legislation can sometimes fall by the wayside.

Questions will come up, including whether these restrictions should apply to private institutions as well as public ones, and to all private security officers, not just those on campuses.

And because all issues seem to revolve around PERS, the draft bill — Legislative Concept 644 — allows PERS retirees to be employed as university campus safety officers without violating pension restrictions. That sound like a good idea. After all, the Oregon Legislature counts on retired Oregon State Police troopers to help with security during legislative sessions.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.