When I began writing this column just over a decade ago, I frequently received letters from people who wondered how in the world I got total access to police reports. I explained to them that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with a surprisingly enlightened policy of the Seattle Police Department. Every report filed by an officer was accessible at police precincts to all members of the press. True, the bulk of the reports involved the most minor incidents imaginable, and all of the reports were redacted to protect the innocent, but a reporter had the freedom to roam the piles of information and find things that might not be of immediate interest to the police but were funny or depressing or odd or uncanny or enlightening.
The police department ended this policy last week, and it now offers the press and public online access to only a very small number of very specific reports—burglaries, robberies, aggravated assaults, and homicides. This is bad for several reasons. To begin with, there is now an emphasis on property crimes. Meaning the reports that the police now make available represent an ideal of police work: cops and robbers. Indeed, the day that I logged on to the new online system, Monday, June 7, 2010, I found 36 reports (from three days) concerning property crimes and only four concerning assault. Anyone who has read even a week's worth of police reports knows that this is far fewer than the 60 or more a day that reporters used to have.
Not all of the great police reports fit into the category that "have been chosen because they are of interest to community members," according to a police department statement. As an example, these are a few stories The Stranger recently reported that would no longer be brought to our attention by police reports: a woman living behind Neighbours nightclub who complained of noise to the police more than 500 times, a man arrested for taking a photo of a cash machine inside REI, a man masturbating outside an elementary school, and a "Molotov cocktail [being] used to blow a hole" in the roof of Madison Middle School.
Another type of crime now in the gray area of police work is vice crimes, such as busting a person for drugs or prostitution. From now on, it will be hard to find reports of cops raiding strip joints to catch and penalize young, beautiful women who gave lap dances to undercover officers. These operations do happen, and may now go unnoticed.
Interim police chief John Diaz stated the new system would save the police from time-costly redactions. "In the past, we were able to put reports out... when they were two-page reports," Diaz told Stranger news editor Dominic Holden. "A typical report now is six to eight pages; every one of those reports has to be redacted, and that is an incredible amount of staff work." But if you want to make cuts to the budget, it would be far more useful to the public if they happened in vice rather than the dissemination of information.
True, the reports are still available, but now you have to order them (that takes too much time) and you have to know exactly what you are ordering—the date, location, incident number, and so on. Ultimately, this process removes the important element of surprise and discovery that was made possible by total access to police reports.
While placing the police reports online provides access to more people—a good thing for some police enthusiasts—it also provides less transparency to reporters and the general public. We can contemplate which is better. But this is a false dilemma. We can have both.