The Seattle Police Department violated public-records laws when it unilaterally refused to release documents relating to squad cars' dash-cam footage, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled this morning in a 4-5 decision. The justices remanded the case to a lower court to decide details of the specific records in question; however, the ruling appears to end the Seattle Police Department's practice of selectively refusing to release dash-cam footage, or even a list of what footage may exist, and reignites questions about why the SPD and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes spent years and limited resources defending a practice of opacity when a federal order to reform the department requires building public trust and increasing transparency.
Here's the decision.
The case concerns KOMO 4 television making three requests relating to dash-cam videos and logs of dash-cam footage in 2010 under the state's Public Records Act. KOMO sought the records as part of a series about SPD using excessive force and biased policing, which were the subject of a federal investigation and subsequent settlement to reform the police department. SPD refused to cough them up, making a series of bizarre, implausible claims about being unable to locate the records and having "no documents." The SPD eventually claimed they had a three-year window in which to withhold the video footage (but then, the SPD automatically erased dash-cam footage after three years). In the meantime, the SPD released the videos to a citizen, belying claims the records were nonexistent or impossible to find.
This is not the only case: In the past, SPD has faced other lawsuits for withholding dash-cam footage.
The court found today that the SPD violated public records laws by refusing to release a "list of retained videos" and that two of KOMO's requests "should have been granted." However, the court agreed, police departments can withhold a record if it is relates to pending litigation. The City of Seattle must pay KOMO for attorney's fees (in addition to the dough the city flushed away on this case).
The SPD did not respond to a request for comment.
And while Seattle' City Attorney Pete Holmes's office did not comment on the money it spent or concerns about its attempt to block public disclosure, deputy chief of staff John Schochet said by e-mail, "We're studying the decision and are working with SPD on coming into compliance with the court's holdings."
This is a defeat for factions of the SPD that have flagrantly abused the law to hide from scrutiny. But it's a victory for the public, the media, and those trying to reform the SPD.