Washington Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that spotlights the Seattle Police Department’s policy regarding public access to dash-camera video footage. The lawsuit, brought by KOMO News against SPD, comes at a time when the police force faces heightened scrutiny about transparency and public accountability.
The lawsuit alleges that SPD violated Washington state’s Public Records Act when it denied several requests from a KOMO reporter in 2010. The requests were for a list of dash-cam videos that officers had tagged for archival storage between 2005 and 2010. Court documents show SPD repeatedly denied the requests with little explanation.
Yet in 2011, a year after KOMO’s initial request, SPD did provide a similar list of videos to a private citizen with data expertise.
“He knew how to use the magic words to request the database in Microsoft SQL server,” KOMO attorney Judith Endejan explained to justices. “He knew how to frame the request so they could not get out of producing it.”
Endejan accused SPD of using "hide-the-ball" tactics and that SPD misled KOMO when it said such a video log was unavailable. She also said that SPD failed to offer KOMO proper explanation about the denials or assistance to craft a successful request.
Attorney Mary Perry represents the City of Seattle and SPD in the lawsuit. Perry said SPD repeatedly tried to fulfill the records request through meetings with the KOMO reporter, attorneys and IT staff.
“We tried, Justice," Parry said. "We honestly tried. Every time we tried to offer something, it was rejected.” Perry said SPD even generated lists of up to 41,000 videos but KOMO said those lists fell short of the records request.
KOMO’s attorney Judith Endejan said SPD's cooperation and offers of in-person meetings came far too late in the process, and only after KOMO enlisted the help of Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin.
The lawsuit raises questions about SPD’s policy regarding public access to the dash-camera videos, and how SPD maintains these records. The case also highlighted an apparent Catch-22 in SPD’s system. The police department claims it cannot release recordings made within the past three years since the files could be the subject of litigation. However, the video database was initially set to automatically erase files older than three years. SPD’s Attorney Mary Perry said the expiration date has been extended, but she was uncertain about new standards.
The court is expected to rule on the case within two to six months.