This is how hard it is to identify a Seattle cop
“What’s your badge number?” the person behind the camera asked a Seattle police sergeant at a civil rights protest in mid-August.
"6645," the officer replied.
With just a number, KUOW reporter Liz Brazile approached Seattle Police communications department. Liz wanted to track down Officer 6645 because he had been accused of driving onto a sidewalk and intimidating protesters. Liz wanted to reach the officer for comment, and to background him.
Who was this officer? she asked. They wouldn’t say. They punted to the Office of Police Accountability, a police department office that reviews complaints against officers, which also refused to give us the officer’s name.
KUOW asked Seattle Police for an officer roster, and was told to file a public records request. When we did that, an auto-reply message from the city told us we might have to wait longer than a year for that information.
Luckily for us, a police roster from 2016 had been uploaded to Muckrock.com, showing that the number 6645 was assigned to Michael Tietjen. We would need to verify this, but it gave us something to go on.
"6645," we learned from this document, was the officer’s serial number — not to be confused with the numbers found on actual badges — that follows Seattle police officers throughout their careers.
We were at a loss: Where could we verify this document uploaded to the internet?
Isolde Raftery, who edited Liz Brazile’s story, asked her husband Levi Pulkkinen what he would do. Levi spent years covering cops and courts for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
"What’s the guy’s name?" Levi asked. He went into his computer and pulled up four court records from the mid-aughts with Tietjen’s name. Tietjen had been the arresting officer in these cases.
We plugged the cases into the online portal for King County Superior Court. Of the four cases, just one had a document that included Tietjen’s serial number: 6645. Just one, because cops don't always include a serial number in their arrest reports.
A note on badge numbers: These may be serial numbers, or they may be random. One cop told us that she received a retired officer’s old badge when she started work. She said police were confused about why everyone was making a big deal about badges earlier in the summer, when cops covered the numbers on them with black memorial bands during protests.
Members of the public, including some politicians, had argued that police were obscuring their identities — effectively making them a secret police force. After much uproar, former Chief Carmen Best asked her officers to remove the black bands.
At the time, police didn’t tell the public that removing the black band may not reveal their identities.
Two sergeants told KUOW that their badge numbers, at different points, haven't matched their serial numbers. Sgt. Randy Huserik, who joined Seattle Police in 1994, said he got a random badge when he arrived.
"We were issued badges through our Quartermaster, and it was essentially whatever badges they had in stock, whether they were new or old, and they came with a number already stamped into them," Huserik said by email.
"My ‘badge number’ was a randomly stamped number on the badge,” he added. "So you will find officers with 20+ years on whose badge number doesn't match their assigned serial number."
Huserik said he received a badge that matches his serial number in 2018 when he was promoted to his current rank.
Intentional or not, the end result for those of us in the public is that an officer’s identity is hard to pin down based on a "badge" number alone.
But also this: Seattle police officers must share their names and serial numbers when asked, verbally or in writing. So when in doubt, ask for a name.