Earlier this year, I wrote about how two programmers were attempting to hold the Seattle Police Department accountable by filing massive public records requests for internal investigations of officer misconduct, spanning from 2010 to 2013. They used settlements from lawsuits over improperly withheld public records to cover tens of thousands of dollars in city fees attached to their requests, and hoped to ultimately put the information online for the public to see.
Now the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB), an official civilian oversight body, is calling on the SPD to do just that—put its database of civilian complaint and disciplinary findings online for public viewing, by March 2016.
"We believe that the citizens of Seattle deserve the right to open information about their police department and its officers," OPARB said in a letter to city leaders last week. "There is a need to provide readily available, free access across all of the cases... in order to re-establish the public trust in police."
The five-member volunteer board of civilians, appointed by the Seattle city council, said disciplinary data from mid-2014 onward is readily accessible in a database and should be made available online at data.seattle.gov.
For every civilian complaint, the database tables would show the date of the incident, a summary of what happened, the location of the incident, the category of allegations, the OPA's recommended discipline, the police chief's disciplinary decision (which supersedes the OPA's recommendation), the final discipline handed down by the chief after officer appeals, and the race and gender of the civilian complainants and the officers involved.
"If it's really all there and accessible, then it shouldn't be an issue," said OPARB co-chair John Levytsky, a finance and data analyst from the private sector. "I think becoming more transparent with their data would be a huge step forward."
In a statement, Eric Rachner, Phil Mocek, and Ben Livingston—the three co-founders of the Center for Open Policing—welcomed OPARB's recommendation: "Civilian oversight of domestic police forces requires comprehensive public access to police data… Without full access to OPA investigative files, the public is left to wonder if our police department is simply sweeping misconduct under the rug."
Levytsky said Rachner and Mocek shouldn't have had to pay nearly $30,000 in fees to obtain SPD's records, and they shouldn't have had to do the work of sorting through them. "I'm sure it was torturous," he said.
This call for transparency may be OPARB's last stand. Levytsky was one of three appointments to the board in 2014 by Council Member Bruce Harrell, the outgoing chair of the council's Public Safety Committee. But the group is supposed to have seven members, not five.
The mayor and entities involved in the Department of Justice-driven reform process want to dissolve OPARB and fold three of its members into the Community Police Commission, which has also had to fight to exert influence over accountability reforms.
"We have been excluded from the consent decree process," Levytsky said, "which makes absolutely no sense to me. Maybe we don't have the resources or firepower that other groups have... If anything, the city needs more accountability people looking at the system, not less.
"It'd be great if we could mutate into a more data-driven group," he added, "but who knows what the future will hold." Regardless of how OPARB or the other civilian boards are constituted, he said, "what's in place long-term, that's not personality dependent, is a key metric [of progress]."
That's why the board chose to push, as 2015 comes to a close, for across-the-board disclosure of disciplinary data, he said, in keeping with open data principles. He called for the SPD to become a "trendsetter" by disclosing the disciplinary data and standardizing the process so that other departments can follow suit.
OPA Director Pierce Murphy said he couldn't comment on the OPARB recommendation unless asked to do so by Council Member Bruce Harrell, who didn't respond to a request for comment.
SPD, meanwhile, refused to endorse or comment substantively on OPARB's recommendation, saying only that the department is "fully committed to transparency and accountability."
Want to participate directly in OPARB? Levytsky said anyone is welcome to join the group's meetings, which happen every first and third Wednesday of the month at City Hall Room 265.