Under its new online system fully implemented this week for publishing police records, the Seattle Police Department is restricting media access to most of the incident reports that used to be available at precinct headquarters. Getting the remaining police records will now require records requests that could take up to a month or more to fulfill, and could cost media outlets around $50 per day.
The new system is intended to "be more convenient and easier for the public," according to an email from SPD spokeswoman Renee Witt yesterday afternoon. The new system allows the public, bloggers, and reporters alike to quickly access police reports on the SPD website.
Reports used to be kept at precincts on CDs—which contained about 60 to 100 reports per day—and the new system lives entirely online. But of those online records, only about 15 reports were provided per day on average this week, about a quarter of the records previously available.
Casey McNerthey, a crime reporter at Seattlepi.com, says, "I do have concerns about it." The online records "provide information to more poeple," he says, but reporters "certainly did get more information when there were copies on CDs at precincts. I think it makes it more difficult."
Online reports include only homicides, assaults, burglaries, and robberies. An assortment of other crimes, such as car prowls and miscellaneous police calls, are no longer available online—nor will the available on on CDs.
"This is actually trying to help you guys out in making it easier to obtain this information," says Detective Mark Jamieson, a spokesman for the SPD. The four categories chosen by the police are generally the crimes that make the biggest headlines, and this system ensures that none of those major crimes fall through the cracks in the reports. Jamieson says police may add more categories of crime if the departments increases its staff.
"You can still get the information," Jamieson continues, however "we can't post everything online. You are going to have to make a request for the reports that aren't posted."
But requesting the records presents significant delay and challenge. Dhea Holland, who works in the department's public record request unit, says police have five days to tell the person requesting documents how long it will take. Generally, she says, the records department would need press to "be as specific as possible requesting case numbers, names, addresses, and be specific to a certain area. They may be able to fulfill the request, but they may contact you and ask for additional information." If someone doesn't have all the specifics—if he or she simply asks for all the records from a given day— Holland says fulfilling the request "might take a little longer."
There is also a cost. After the first 20 pages, records cost 15 cents each. Reports average four to six pages each, Holland says. So if there are 80 reports in a day (about 400 pages), paying the fee for the reports would cost $57.75.
To be clear, we are not necessarily talking about huge cases (although it's unclear what cases could be omitted). But we are talking about a obscurity of police records, some of which may not fall under the categories posted online but have significance nonetheless. Creating a major obstacle for the media obtaining those records—and thereby an obstacle for the public learning about police activity—is problematic.