James Egan’s Dash-Cam Problem

Why the city is suing this lawyer.

The dash-cam video—once rare, now widespread—creates a new vulnerability for police officers who go too far. Entered into a court record and made public (or leaked to the media), videos become the measure by which the average TV and online viewer judges, rightly or wrongly, the Seattle Police Department. Their release is something SPD would prefer to avoid. That seems the likely reason why City Hall is suing James Egan for asking to see cops on film.

This draconian reaction—being hauled to court by the government for requesting public records—is the work of Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. He says he’s seeking “guidance” from the courts, arguing that a video taken by a public servant in a public place is somehow private information. He says in the lawsuit that the state’s privacy act prevents such videos from becoming public until any litigation surrounding them is concluded.

Egan says that’s hogwash. A Seattle attorney who represents clients suing the police, Egan—making a request available to any average citizen—sought 36 dash-cam videos. He was turned down. Then notice of Holmes’ lawsuit arrived.

“I was floored,” he told KING-TV. Should Holmes prevail, it would take at least three years to obtain the vids—just when the statute of limitations for lawsuits against SPD runs out and when the department routinely erases stored videos. “The idea that you can’t get a video until three years later is self-protectionism. They don’t want the public to know the skeletons in their closets,” Egan says. 

Another TV station, KOMO, is already suing the city over failure to release dash-cam vids, and that case seems ready-made for Holmes to raise such an issue. But now he has gone to the extra expense of raising it in a whole new case.

“What the police department is saying,” Egan told KOMO, “is if you make a request for public documents, ultimately you will be sued.”

“He’s made a request that puts the city between a rock and a hard place,” Holmes told KIRO, curiously the only station without a dog in the fight. “We have a plain conflict and we simply need direction from the court, both in order to comply with the law and protect the public treasury.”

Holmes says it could cost taxpayers “dearly” if he makes the wrong decision. But of course lawsuits against police officers, based in part on video evidence, can cost dearly too. His anti-disclosure lawsuit comes off like another bad move to protect bad officers, similar to the defiant arrogance of Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz in the wake of the Justice Department’s recent findings that Seattle cops regularly use excessive force.

“It would be comical,” says Egan, “if it weren’t alarming.”

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