KOMO sues Seattle police over public records

KOMO sues Seattle police over public records
SEATTLE -- On Monday afternoon, KOMO News filed a lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department because we believe the department is breaking state public records law.

For more than a year, our Problem Solver investigators have been fighting for access to the department's database of dashcam videos.

The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, contends the police department has intentionally and illegally stonewalled the Problem Solvers over and over again.

The Seattle Police Department is already under federal investigation following several high-profile incidents of alleged police misconduct. We wanted to see for ourselves whether there are more videos that capture questionable behavior by police, but the department is not cooperating.

Justin Boldaji knows how important it can be to have video of an encounter with police.

When Boldaji found himself surrounded by Seattle police officers for allegedly jaywalking and then forcibly put on the hood of a police cruiser last May, he figured he was lucky because someone nearby had a cell phone camera.


A cell phone camera recording of Boldaji's encounter.

"I felt like I was being jumped by, like a gang, honestly," Boldaji said.

Boldaji told us he was crossing in a crosswalk when the light began flashing "don't walk." An officer stopped Boldaji on the sidewalk and told him he'd committed an infraction and threatened to arrest him for obstruction.

"I am being grappled and held down for doing absolutely nothing," Boldaji said, describing the encounter. "There is nothing I can do about it."

But 20 minutes later police let him go; no ticket, no arrest. And he wonders if that would have happened without the camera.

"The video evidence is incredibly powerful in front of a jury," says public defender Burns Peterson.

"If the video is some key evidence which would be contrary to what the police officer may be reporting and the video had recorded it favorable to our client, certainly it would make a huge difference."

But most video evidence doesn't come from private citizens like in Boldaji's case.

Whether it's a DUI suspect failing a field sobriety test or a police officer under the microscope following an officer-involved shooting, most video evidence comes directly from the police department itself. Often the video is from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars.

After each shift the officer transfers their video into the department's system and a database keeps track of the recordings. The Problem Solvers have been fighting with the Seattle Police Department for more than a year to gain access to that database so we'd have an index to request specific videos. At every turn the Seattle Police Department has blocked us.

"I was shocked that the department, as a matter of policy, is intentionally violating the Public Records Act," said former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay.

McKay and attorney Pat Preston took the Seattle Police Department to court for refusing to turn over records involving their client. They won, but the city appealed. The Court of Appeals ruled in some cases the city rightfully withheld records and in other cases wrongly withheld records. So now the case has been sent back to the Superior Court for consideration of appropriate penalties. McKay and Preston still have not received the records.

McKay and Preston believe the department has a policy of always refusing citizen requests for public records.

"I don't think there's any question," McKay says, "that they know that they're violating the law."

Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb says the department enforces the law.

"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," he said.

Whitcomb said the department follows the city attorney's legal advice on public records and treats release of investigative information with an abundance of caution.

"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."

But the department's reasons don't add up when looking at Eric Rachner's 2008 arrest for obstruction, which was recorded on a Seattle Police Department dashcam.

Certain of his innocence and convinced that multiple police videos would prove it, Rachner made numerous requests for copies of the videos.


Dashcam video of Eric Rachner's arrest.

Though we have access to the video now, Rachner was told that all the videos had been destroyed.

"And that's when I realized that the law didn't matter here," Rachner said. "You know this is the city being vindictive; hiding exonerating evidence."

Rachner works in international cyber security. The criminal charge was costing him business, but he had no choice other than to fight.

"At that moment it was a very dark experience and I was deeply worried," he said. "I would even say traumatized."

After nearly six months, the city dropped the charge against Rachner. But he kept fighting for the video. Only after looking at part of the department's database did he have proof that these videos existed, and more than two years after his arrest he finally got one police video, then another, and another and another.

"I'm just the one guy who caught them," Rachner said. "How many other people have asked for their videos and been told that, for legal reasons they couldn't have them, or that the videos didn't exist or had been erased? I can't be the only one."

And that, in a nutshell, is the reason the Problem Solvers began our fight for access to the Seattle Police Department's video database and why we have now filed a lawsuit against the department.

Independent access to that video evidence is one way to ensure that our police always act in your best interest.

The Problem Solvers now have access to that database from a different source and we've already uncovered some disturbing information about the loss of thousands of videos from the system.

We'll have that part of our investigation Tuesday night.