Award-winning programmer Tim Clemans is still searching for a way to make a difference in the fight for government transparency. He's become notorious for filing massive public disclosure requests (PDRs), using the state public records law as a blunt instrument to force state agencies to share more data. But he's tired of that approach. On January 22, he sent the Seattle Police Department the following e-mail message:
After speaking with Jonah [Spangenthal-Lee] at Seattle Police I've decided pdring the crap out of SPD/city won't achieve the transparency I want. Please cancel all PDRs from me except the PDRs to Seattle Police for list of Coban videos and individual unit dispatches.
I will login into fake email accounts and cancel those pdrs.
Clemans told me he was browsing through records furnished to him by the City of Sammamish—he had filed thousands of requests with cities and counties across the state, including some requests to view "all" of their records—when he realized "how epicly boring this is... These records should be in the cloud especially the ones not requiring redaction. Our records system makes no sense in the 21st century."
He's withdrawn the vast majority of his requests across the state. At the same time, the Seattle Police Department will begin consulting Clemans about transparency issues in an advisory capacity.
Last year, the department hired him to work on these issues, but it didn't work out because Clemans clashed with a high-ranking captain.
"He wants to be an ambassador for the work we're doing," said police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb. "He's not an employee, he's not an intern, but he is going to be working with us... volunteering his time in an advisory capacity, specifically on the subject of transparency and open data."
Whitcomb said there was no official agreement from Clemans to drop the disclosure requests in exchange for the new role.
In an interview, Clemans said his goal is to work at a private company like Socrata, where there’s likely to be less red tape than at a government agency, using his programming skills and passion for transparency to build useful open data platforms.
Whitcomb said his public affairs unit is still using an electronic tool Clemans created that allows them to more easily redact sensitive information from police reports.
Last year, Washington state received an "F" grade for access to government information from the The Center for Public Integrity.
At the local level, the situation isn't much better. A 2015 study by city auditors of the SPD's public disclosure unit found it uses an "antiquated and inefficient system," reported the Seattle Times.
Signalling that it plans to take these issues seriously, the SPD recently created a new Director of Transparency and Privacy position to be filled by former attorney Mary Perry.
But it's unclear what concrete changes Perry will push through. When it comes to disclosure of police records, she told me she wants to "get 'em out faster, get 'em out more efficiently." But, she warned, "That's going to take some time... I would like a thoughtful approach. I'd like to solicit input from the users, and I mean all users, not just the vocal few." She offered no timelines.
When I asked about about the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board's demand, backed by a majority of the City Council, that the SPD share its database of aggregate officer disciplinary data by the end of March, Perry said, "That's something we're looking at. We'll come up with the right solution, but I can't say what it's going to be." So... someday, we'll do something!