ENDORSEMENT: Voters should re-elect Barton as WashCo DA
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Washington County voters will decide in May for who should serve as district attorney over the next four years, and the difference between the two candidates is stark.
Kevin Barton is a career prosecutor with years of experience in the District Attorney's Office here in Washington County. He was elected in 2018 as the preferred heir apparent to Bob Hermann, the DA for 20 years before retiring that year.
Brian Decker is a public defender who has testified before Washington County commissioners, as recently as 2020, to urge them to cut funding to the DA's Office and to the Washington County Sheriff's Office. He does have experience as a federal prosecutor, working for the Obama administration in the U.S. District of Arizona, but he hasn't come close to managing an office on the scale of the Washington County DA's Office.
We enter this contest with an open mind. While this editorial board endorsed Barton four years ago, we did so citing significant concerns about his opponent at the time, who lacked experience and misled voters about the source of his campaign funding.
"Reform candidates in DA's races nationwide are gaining ground because voters are realizing there is more to criminal justice issues than they've previously realized. This is a growing movement, and it's one not likely to go away anytime soon," we wrote, adding, "Four years from now, Barton could see his run challenged by a more bankable candidate if the county doesn't start to come around on these issues."
Indeed, Decker is that more bankable candidate. As a public defender in Washington County, he knows his way around the courthouse. As a former federal prosecutor, he has experience holding criminal suspects accountable and making hard decisions about how to pursue cases.
And while we urged Barton in our endorsement four years ago to make a meaningful shift toward reforming Washington County's traditional tough-on-crime approach, the county's reputation hasn't changed much. Decker describes it as "the most punitive county in the state," something he sees as a profound negative.
"(Barton) knows that the idea of a reform prosecutor is popular with voters," Decker told us, "but that's not the way he runs his office."
Violence and policing
Decker raises valid concerns about gun crimes increasing in Washington County. That is undoubtedly a serious problem.
But we're not convinced that Barton is to blame.
Washington County doesn't exist in a vacuum. The second-largest county in the state by population, we're right on the doorstep of Portland, where violent crimes have surged in recent years. Barton acknowledges that some of this crime is "spilling over" into Washington County — but he points the finger of blame at leaders and institutions in Portland and Multnomah County he says are failing to hold criminals accountable.
The Portland City Council infamously moved quickly to cut the police budget, curtailing a gun violence response unit among other reductions, in response to calls after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis two years ago to "defund the police." That was a reactionary move with evidently poor outcomes.
This editorial board criticized the Portland Police Bureau two years ago for how it handled protests. We remain convinced that the police's heavy-handed response, including the virtually indiscriminate use of tear gas, less-lethal munitions, and tactics like bull-rushing and kettling demonstrators, only served to enflame the situation and lead to more violence, more vandalism and more unrest from which Portland's downtown core has yet to recover.
But — like the vast majority of Oregonians and Americans — we believe that radical propositions like defunding or outright abolishing law enforcement are antithetical to the goal of a safer, most just society.
Police need to be trained to de-escalate situations, to see civilians as human beings who deserve to be served and protected, to handle stressful situations with grace instead of panic or rage.
They need to be equipped in ways that promote accountability — body-worn cameras, which have become the standard in the Washington County Sheriff's Office and other local law enforcement agencies over the past couple years — rather than empowering them to act lawlessly, like we saw with Portland police's enthusiastic overuse of crowd-control munitions during the 2020 summer of protests.
And in the broader scheme of things, we need more police officers and officer candidates, not fewer. Larger applicant pools mean agencies can exercise more discretion in who ends up with a badge and a gun, rather than being so desperate to recruit that the wrong people end up wielding power over someone else's life. More officers on the force means not just faster response times — which can save lives and lead to more suspects being taken into custody — but more personnel who can be tasked with "community policing," engaging with people to better know who they serve and build relationships, as well as with thoroughly investigating crimes to deliver justice for victims.
These are things we think most people in Washington County want. These are things we think most elected officials in Washington County understand. These are things we think Kevin Barton understands.
Decker, on the other hand, has affiliated himself with a fringe ideology that had its 15 minutes of fame in 2020 but has since — rightfully — been rejected by an overwhelming and bipartisan majority.
In July 2020, Decker and a small group of like-minded attorneys formed a nonprofit advocacy group called the Washington County Justice Initiative. Decker is listed in the articles of incorporation as the group's incorporator and initial president, although he says he actually served as treasurer for most of his time with the group before resigning last year to campaign for Washington County DA.
The Washington County Justice Initiative calls for some very reasonable things that we think many voters support: ending police violence, holding law enforcement accountable, holding prosecutors accountable.
It also calls, on the front of its website, to "defund police, prosecution and prisons." In case that's ambiguous, it defines what it means on another page: "abolishing the prison system."
Decker offered two arguments in his defense when we pressed him on his association with this far-left group.
First, he said, he didn't support the platform in its entirety. He likened it to how to he's part of a parent-teacher organization at his child's school, but he doesn't agree with every decision it makes.
We find that unpersuasive.
For one, the Washington County Justice Initiative is a small, informal group. Its purpose, clearly stated, is to advocate for radical reform. A parent might feel an obligation to join the PTO to have a voice in their child's school community. Decker was under no obligation to be a board member of this advocacy organization if he fundamentally disagreed with a key part of its advocacy.
For another, Decker founded the group. He was its initial president. Are we to believe its goals and mission somehow ran away from him after he founded it? And yet he continued to serve as a senior officer and spokesperson for a group with which he now says he disagreed on a fundamental issue?
Decker's second argument is that any views he might hold on defunding the police, abolishing the prison system, or otherwise radically reordering the way our organs of public safety and justice operate are, in essence, a red herring. It's not within the DA's power — or it's "not a sufficient position" — to do any of that, he told us.
This is a case where we see Decker trying to have it both ways.
Decker defends his decision to list his party affiliation — he's a Democrat — on his campaign signs and use it in his messaging. In Washington County, which is strongly Democratic, that might be a good way to pick up votes. And Decker argues that it's actually a good thing that he is so open about his political affiliation, so voters know what he stands for. And yet, he concedes, the DA's office is "not a sufficient position" to enact policies.
Decker also criticizes the state of public safety in Washington County by pointing out that the county needs more beds for mental health treatment and addiction recovery; more safe places for people without shelter to sleep and services to connect them with housing and employment; and more low-income housing to keep people off the streets and provide stability for working-class individuals and families. He's right, of course. But while the DA can support those efforts — as Barton has — he can't wave a magic wand and solve those socioeconomic problems.
The DA's job is deciding who to prosecute, what charges to press and what legal remedies to seek. Barton knows the job, and he's done it well enough to win broad backing from nearly all of Washington County's mayors, a diverse array of community leaders, and prominent county residents and officials from across the political spectrum.
Barton's tenure as DA has hardly been spotless. In his first few weeks on the job, the county prosecutor's office made two charging decisions — both involving people affiliated with the criminal justice system, both involving on-the-job violent conduct, both involving people at the mercy of the justice system — that have aged like milk.
Barton acknowledged in our interview with him that the DA's Office made a mistake in failing to prosecute Rian Alden, a Washington County sheriff's deputy who was caught on surveillance video body-slamming an inmate at the jail in Hillsboro, leaving him with a brain injury. The incident happened in 2018, while Hermann was the DA, but the ultimate decision not to prosecute came under Barton, just as he was settling into the position that summer.
The investigation into Alden was reopened in 2020, and Alden is now awaiting trial for assault and official misconduct.
"We should have filed charges on that sooner," Barton told us.
Barton was less decisive in addressing the case of Tony Klein, a former nurse at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. The DA's Office declined to pursue charges against Klein in summer 2018 after 11 women who had been housed at the prison accused Klein of sexual abuse. A deputy prosecutor under Barton concluded that there wasn't sufficient evidence and questioned the integrity of the accusers.
Klein was charged earlier this year in federal court in connection with the abuse allegations. He is awaiting trial in Portland.
Barton told us that while he's glad to see Klein tried in federal court, he continues to believe the DA's Office made the right call in 2018 based on the information it had. The feds' decision to prosecute Klein, he said, came after they received new information. We grant that — but we hope our local prosecutors dig deeper the next time a case like this arises, rather than leaving Uncle Sam to sort it out.
On other matters of office, Barton remains more conservative than we would prefer, more moderate than his opponent would have voters believe.
Barton touts himself as not an out-and-out reform prosecutor, but a prosecutor who champions what he calls "responsible reforms." Those include setting up specialty units to investigate and prosecute, for instance, domestic violence and child abuse, as well as specialty courts — a couple of which precede his tenure as DA — to rehabilitate offenders. He is especially proud of one such court that connects military veterans who struggle with addiction and/or trauma with treatment and counseling.
While they fall outside his direct purview as a prosecutor, Barton has also been a vocal advocate for the planned Washington County Center for Addictions Triage and Treatment, which would provide much-needed beds for addiction recovery, and for the Family Peace Center, which provides support for victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
Barton also publicly opposed Ballot Measure 105, which would have repealed a state law barring the use of local and state law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws, and he stood with other local and state leaders in telling the Trump administration to keep U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement away from the county courthouse. In both cases, he argued they stood to make the public less safe, having a chilling effect on people's willingness to cooperate with police and prosecutors and decreasing trust in the justice system.
We'd like to see Barton commit to finding alternatives to prosecution in more cases. In particular, we share Decker's concerns about juveniles being prosecuted in Washington County, which should always be a last resort reserved only for the most serious cases and the most hardened offenders. We hope the number of specialty courts continues to grow in the next four years, and that the number of people whom they avail increases while the number of people prosecuted for non-violent offenses decreases.
But we are persuaded that Barton is the best person to lead the DA's Office. He has the trust of community leaders, he has the respect of the county's prosecutors and law enforcement officers, and he has stood up for Washington County's values repeatedly as the county's top prosecutor.
Mistakes made very early in his tenure are concerning, but we believe Barton — who took the rare step of asking the attorney general's office to review a police shooting last year in Tigard, reasoning that the public would have more trust, and he as a prosecutor would have more confidence, in a decision made by a top authority with fewer ties to the Tigard Police Department — is a man who generally recognizes his mistakes and learns from them.
We urge a vote for Kevin Barton as Washington County district attorney for the next four years.
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