THE DOOR TO accessing police investigative records was pushed slightly ajar late last month, when the state's supreme court gave a partial victory to Spokane's daily newspaper in a lawsuit against the Spokane Police Department.

The facts of the case, Cowles Publishing v. the Spokane Police Department, are as follows: In 1997, the Spokesman-Review requested an incident report and a mug shot of an assistant city attorney, who had been arrested on charges of drunk driving and punching a police officer in the face. The police department denied the request, arguing that the case was still being investigated. Too much media attention, law enforcement officials often argue, threaten their ability to solve crimes.

On October 21, the state's high court granted the newspaper the right to the incident report, but not the mug shot. By giving the Spokane paper the right to view the incident report, it specifically defined when a case is open for public review: If an arrest has been made and if police have forwarded the case to local prosecutors for possible prosecution, then the case is closed to police, and therefore open to outside review.

The problem is that many criminal cases do not fall under that definition. There are times when an arrest is made, but, for whatever reason, the charges are not forwarded to prosecutors.

In turn, some civil libertarians are disappointed that the court's decision didn't go further. They believe law enforcement has too much leeway in releasing information to the public. "[Police can] act to control the content of the news, not just to protect an investigation," says Michael Killeen, an attorney whose media clients include The Seattle Times and The Olympian. "They're going to choose who's going to be outed; whose picture will be put in the paper. They are going to withhold the information about those they want to protect."

And there are unsolved crimes. A good detective bureau typically only "solves" (read: makes arrests in) 70 to 80 percent of its murder cases each year. The remaining unsolved murders may never get reviewed, yet some of these cases have the greatest need for the public's attention. The cases could show a pattern of consistent mistakes made by investigators, à la JonBenet Ramsey. Or perhaps the case could actually benefit from media attention, leading to an arrest that wouldn't have been made otherwise.

A more serious question involves "police investigations," often including internal-affairs reviews of police misconduct. These cases rarely involve criminal prosecution, meaning a department is free to hide information about its bad cops.

A few years ago, access to criminal investigations in the state of Washington was fairly open. If someone wanted to determine how an investigation was going, the police department could only deny that request by proving that disclosure would compromise their investigation.

Then came a court case involving free-lance journalist David Newman, who was writing for The Stranger. Newman wanted to see police files on the unsolved 1969 murder case of civil-rights activist Edwin Pratt. Officials of King County, where the murder occurred, told him no. They claimed they had re-opened the investigation, and as a result, documents relating to it could not be disclosed. King County won, and the resulting court precedent allowed police departments to declare virtually any criminal case that had not resulted in a conviction to be closed from public inspection.

With the Spokane decision, the media and the public will have some ability to get more information from local law enforcement. But according to Duane Swinton, who represented the Spokesman-Review before the state court, the decision doesn't restore the type of access that existed before the Newman decision. "I do think it's a significant decision, but I think it could have been more significant," he says.

Support The Stranger