More after the jump.
UPDATE: A rather significant update to this story involves the misplacement of several thousand dash-cam videos by SPD. No, really, they're just gone.
More after the jump.
UPDATE: KOMO now reports that several thousand dash-cam records have simply disappeared from the Seattle Police Department's possession. "Yes, a lot of video has disappeared and there have been efforts to recover them," [Sgt. Sean] Whitcomb said. It's unclear what kind of access the station had to the records in order to independently verify that the videos have disappeared. News Director Holly Gauntt wasn't available at the ungodly hour I called.
In total, more than 45,000 videos vanished from the system over three years.
"Yes, a lot of video has disappeared and there have been efforts to recover them," [Sgt. Sean] Whitcomb said.
It's unclear what kind of access the station had to the records in order to independently verify that the videos have disappeared. News Director Holly Gauntt wasn't available at the ungodly hour I called.
The Seattle City Council is currently looking into a program that would make police officers wear lapel-mounted body cameras that would record all the interactions between police and residents. It's an innovative idea that could help bridge the yawning chasm of trust between the public and the Seattle Police Department.
But the body-camera program will only work if the videos can be accessed by the press and public. And judging by the lawsuit levied against SPD over the video-camera footage it already collects, there's no reason to think that body-camera footage will be seen by anybody but whom the SPD (and occasionally the courts) say can see it.
KOMO News announced today that it has sued the Seattle Police Department for refusing to grant access to numerous dash-cam videos collected during police/public interactions.
According to court documents, the station has been trying to get a list of videos held by SPD, and access to viewing them, for more than a year.
What they've gotten instead is the runaround.
First SPD's excuse was that the language in the public-records request was wrong. Then the department said it didn't have the capability to search for videos. Finally it claimed that even if it could search for videos, the law prevents it from releasing videos less than three years old (this despite the fact that the department deletes videos that are older than three years).
Keep in mind that it was dash-cam footage that was used in the case against Ofc. Ian Birk who shot Seattle woodcarver John T. Williams. Dash-cam footage was also shown when Ofc. Shandy Cobane stomped the "Mexican piss" out of a prone suspect.
The excuse that the department can't search for videos using certain parameters is laughable. The department's dash cams are made by the company Coban, and in advertisements the company boasts of being "amazed about the way they can search for items."
Seattle Weekly spoke with Holly Gauntt, KOMO's news director, about why SPD's inaction on releasing the videos was worth suing over.
"We absolutely feel [SPD has] thrown up road blocks every step of the way," she says. "You have a police department that is at the center of a justice-department investigation over alleged police misconduct. You'd think they would be interested in showing they are being open and transparent. Instead they're doing the opposite. The public has a right to see these videos."
For KOMO, the station says the breaking point in deciding whether to sue or not came when much of the same information they had been requesting was released to a private citizen who had asked for it in a nearly identical fashion that the station had.
Gauntt also went on the record saying that SPD in general makes it more difficult than any other law-enforcement agency in obtaining information.
"From a standpoint from trying to get information from that department, I would say they are the most difficult," Gauntt says.
It's a sentiment shared by us at Seattle Weekly, where our calls to SPD--even for the most basic of comments or information--are often met with hostility and a lack of transparency. Public Information Officers (the folks paid to talk with the media) have, on several occasions, threatened to end conversations simply because they heard someone typing and didn't want to be quoted. On other occasions PIOs often seem to do everything they can to claim that they can't answer questions.
SPD Sgt. Sean Whitcomb defends the department's policies to KOMO, saying:
"We want to follow the law so if we're given very clear guidance as to what the legal course of action is--that's the course of action that we're going to take. It's actually very complicated stuff, it's very complex," he said. "Some of it is subject to state law; some of it is subject to labor law."
KOMO's lawsuit deserves praise not only because it may finally force the department to grant access to dash-cam videos (something they'll have to do more of if the body-camera idea comes to fruition), but also it may help remind SPD that the Freedom of Information Act and Washington's Open Records Act are laws and not simple suggestions.
Read the full complaint below.