Seattle Police, Despite U.S. Probe, Continue to Rack Up Fines ($220,000) for Records Failures

Turner Helton
Even under the pressure of a federal investigation into potential civil rights violations and use of excessive force, the Seattle Police Department has played with truthiness. Besides wrongly withholding crucial e-mails and videos from the public, the SPD has now racked up at least $220,000 in fines and fees the last 15 months for failing to disclose public records. It acts like a department with something to hide.

Earlier this year, Mayor Mike McGinn and Chief John Diaz promised full cooperation with the federal probe and indicated the department would be more open in its dealings with citizens. Yet SPD continues to resist efforts by the press and public to look deeper. The latest example is a new court ruling requiring the department to pay legal fees accrued by Seattle antiques dealer Turner Helton, 72.

It cost him $129,000, by the court's accounting, to sue the department last year just to find out what police said about his own 2009 case - an excessive-force complaint he brought against the department.

That tab, to now be paid by taxpayers because of the department's failures, is on top of $20,000 in public money that the same King County Superior Court Judge Judge, Richard Eadie, earlier fined the department for wrongly withholding the records Helton sought.

Eadie said SPD gave Helton's request "too short of shrift," a nice way of saying it ignored him, hoping he'd go away.

The judge didn't feel the department necessarily acted in bad faith. But SPD had claimed disclosure would violate their police officers' privacy and hinder "effective law enforcement" - an oldie but a goodie, long used as an excuse by the department to keep secret just about any document it wants to hide.

As Steve Miletich notes in the Seattle Times, "Helton's case follows years of clashes in which the department has often resisted providing public records to citizens, lawyers and reporters, in part, because of agreements with the Seattle police union."

The department did finally give Helton his records after a long delay, and only in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling in another records case, which subjects the department to more fines if it continues to resist.

And it is, KOMO-TV, for one, says. The station filed its own lawsuit in September, contending the department has intentionally and illegally stonewalled reporters' attempts to obtain dash-cam videos for more than a year.

SPD is now promising to open up access to more of its records and databases. But will it really?

Like the KOMO suit, the Helton case unfolded despite the ongoing federal probe into just such failures and despite earlier city promises of reform. The Helton case also is almost a repeat of a lawsuit last August, 2010, in which SPD was fined $70,000 for failing to release documents in another excessive force incident.

The attorney in that lawsuit, former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay, claimed Chief Diaz was engaged in a "full-blown cover-up" and told the Times the Department of Justice should investigate the department.

The mayor's office quickly struck back, claiming McKay had called the chief "a liar on the front page of the paper."

But two months later, the Justice Department indeed announced a formal probe of SPD's possible constitutional violations of its citizens.

Given the repetitious withholding of records and videos, the question the feds might now answer is not only was it a full-blown cover-up, but is it still?

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