The following article was written by Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton

HILLSBORO, Ore.- I received a phone call not long ago from a young woman. The call was unexpected, as was the question she asked, “Do you remember me?”

As the District Attorney for Washington County, Oregon’s second most populous county, I have interacted with tens of thousands of people over the course of my career. I cannot honestly say that I remember each of them. But I absolutely did remember her.

The last time we had spoken was many years earlier during a difficult criminal trial. At that time, she was a thirteen-year-old victim and I was prosecuting her step-father for horrific sexual crimes he had committed against her. During the trial, I stood in court and announced that she would be my next witness. But when I walked into the hallway to get her, she was gone.

What do you do when your key witness is suddenly missing at the pivotal moment in the middle of a trial? Without her testimony, no matter how scared she might be, the case would fall apart and be dismissed. My mind raced as I frantically looked in the hallway for her, while the judge and jury waited in the courtroom for me.

I eventually found her hiding in the bathroom, afraid to come out to testify. No matter how much I reasoned and pleaded with her, she refused to budge. Finally, out of desperation I gave her my hand and asked her to take it so we could walk into the courtroom together. Surprisingly, she did. She approached the witness stand, took her oath to tell the truth, and revealed to the jury what had happened to her. Her step-father was convicted and she and I both moved on with our lives. I continued to prosecute criminals and eventually was elected as District Attorney. She continued to grow up.

And then many years later we reconnected with her phone call and her question, “Do you remember me?”

She called asking to interview me for a college assignment. We agreed to meet in person and when the interview finished, we talked about that moment when she was hiding in the bathroom. I asked her what she was thinking when she changed her mind and took my hand. Her response was startling.

She told me that in that instant, she knew she had a choice to make. She could stay in the bathroom and feel safe that day, but be scared the rest of her life. Or, she could take my hand and feel scared that day, but be safe for the rest of her life.

Safety is a fundamental right. Unlike the rights to speech, religion or property, the right to safety is not explicitly a constitutionally guaranteed right. But it is every bit as important. Without safety our society cannot function and our constitutional rights have no meaning.

Safety means being able to live, work and raise a family without fear of crime. It is knowing that when a crime occurs, justice will follow. When you call the police, they will come. When they come, they will protect. And when they protect by making an arrest, the district attorney will prosecute the criminal to safeguard the victim and the community.

These principles may seem self-evident. But we live in a time when they are under attack. We face extremists who advocate for defunding police, abolishing prisons and tearing down our public safety system. And we endure leaders who spread partisan rhetoric rather than demonstrating political courage.

The task of ensuring safe communities is more difficult today than perhaps any other time in our state’s modern history. Challenges from skyrocketing addiction, uncontrolled homelessness and dramatic increases in crime are spreading. In Portland alone, we have seen an unprecedented surge in violence. According to the Portland Police Bureau, there were 1,240 shootings during the past 12 months, compared to 388 during the calendar year 2019. And there have been 62 homicides in Portland so far in 2021, putting the city on a path to break the homicide record, again. While it might be tempting to assume that Portland’s problem will remain isolated, as the district attorney in the neighboring county, I can assure you that crime does not stop at the county line.

Despite these grim facts and difficult environment, this remains a struggle that we can win. I frequently hear people openly wonder why someone doesn’t do something. As a district attorney I can share that I am working with other public safety leaders to do all we can. But in our participatory system of government, where we share a common obligation to be informed and take action, our leaders need your help and, in some instances, your demand for action.

Just as that young victim of mine who was hiding in the bathroom recognized the need to stand up for her safety, I believe Oregonians who understandably are scared and appalled at the current state of affairs, must join together to ensure all of our safety.

October 05, 2021