County commissioners ask DA to look at screening, security issues

For the first time in recent memory, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk convened the annual corrections grand jury early this year to more deeply examine policies, practices and actions within the county sheriff's office -an office marred by an embarassing string of errors in its jails.

Schrunk impaneled the grand jury last week, and the sheriff's office already has submitted documents for jurors' perusal. The first jail tours for the jurors are scheduled to begin next week.

The grand juries, required by Oregon law, usually convene in September and run until December, studying everything from food service to inmate health programs to overtime spending. Though it deliberates and meets in secret, each corrections grand jury releases a public report when its term concludes.

But last month, almost immediately following an article in the Portland Tribune that told of a male inmate, Deray Willis, escaping from his cell undetected for more than two hours to have sex with a female inmate, the county Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 on a resolution to formally ask Schrunk to get involved. Schrunk responded by installing the grand jury early, a possibility he acknowledged as early as June 6.

'It was clear to us that this was one of those times when we needed a closer look, that what is done normally should be expanded,' said county Commissioner Lisa Naito, who sponsored the resolution.

The article about the inmate followed the disclosure by the Tribune in January that sheriff's officials had released early an inmate with a violent past without either sheriff's deputies or civilian Department of Community Justice employees ever having performed a full background check on him. Two days after his early release, Richard 'Red' Koehrsen was charged with stabbing another man to death on a downtown street.

Both Tribune articles followed reports in The Oregonian from 2005 that showed that an inmate already guilty of one murder and considered a risk for violent behavior, Thomas Allen Gordon, fatally beat his cellmate after being removed from solitary confinement.

All three incidents have been repeatedly cited by commissioners and other county officials as reasons for more oversight of the sheriff's office. Naito said those incidents showed lapses in inmate-screening and internal security, which gave them broader importance than if they simply were three isolated examples of disparate failure.

'We need to look at it in order to understand it,' John Bradley, the district attorney's office special counsel who manages the grand jury, said of each incident. 'We have to try to be as detailed as possible, so we needed more time and it's going to be a much lengthier report than normal.'

Bradley said he also would invite outside experts to review policies, procedures and incidents and to work with the grand jury.

Sheriff considers big picture

Sheriff Bernie Giusto said he hoped the grand jury would spend little time on the specifics of those particular incidents and spend the bulk of its time looking at jail beds, inmate-health programs and the budget he gets from commissioners.

'The grand jury can look at whatever it wants to, of course,' he said. 'But there are those small, specific things that happened that we have under control, that are rare occurrences, and there are big, large things that affect everything we do, like our funding levels. It's my hope that they see the difference and spend their time accordingly.'

Naito, a former deputy district attorney, wrote a letter dated June 8 to Schrunk formalizing their conversations about his getting involved - two days after the Portland Tribune reported the May 1 incident with Willis, whom deputies did not know was missing until he pressed a call button to be let out of the female inmate's cell.

Commissioners voted June 15 to invite the district attorney to begin his examination, which Schrunk said at the time he would do only because the commissioners and Giusto favored it.

In a prepared statement to commissioners at the time of the vote, Giusto wrote of his openness to the inquiry. He noted somewhat pointedly, however, that under Oregon law he is charged with 'sole administration of the county's jails.'

'This shouldn't be an adversarial process,' the sheriff said this week. 'I'm here to help in any way I can.'

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