By Ankita Joshi and Angelina Sang
SEATTLE, WA – After the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6, six Seattle police officers, identified in pleadings only as Jane and John Does 1-6, are under investigation by the Seattle Police Department for their potential involvement.
During these investigations, a few individuals came forward to request additional information regarding the officers and their identities under the Washington Public Records Act. However, the officers under investigation filed a reverse public records lawsuit to prevent release of the records.
The reverse public records lawsuit claims that unless the allegations against the officers are affirmed, the public does not have any legitimate interest in the investigation records or officers’ identities.
The King County Superior Court denied the officers’ motion, and Sept. 24, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 24 other media and transparency organizations filed an amici curiae brief urging the Washington Supreme Court to affirm the King County Court’s opinion.
The Reporters Committee reasoned that the release of such records is of strong, legitimate interest to the public and would serve to “help the public evaluate the work of police oversight boards and identify areas for reform,” foster accountability within the police departments, and bolster public trust in the integrity of those employed to protect them.
The brief begins by outlining the importance of transparency, especially in regards to “the conduct of the law enforcement officers sworn to serve their communities, and to ensure that investigations into potential misconduct are conducted effectively and fairly.”
The Washington Public Records Act of 1972 upholds this sentiment as it is “nothing less than the preservation of the most central tenets of representative government, namely, the sovereignty of the people and the accountability to the people of public officials and institutions.”
As a result of this Public Records Act, the King County Superior Court denied the motion on the grounds that “the Doe Officers cannot demonstrate that releasing the Records would constitute an invasion of privacy as defined under the PRA and that the Records are not exempt from disclosure, including under any PRA privacy-based exemption.”
Additionally, the media groups argue that the Jan. 6 Washington D.C. events the Doe officers attended were far from private activities.
It is also noted that the Doe Officers’ potential involvement in the “violent storming of the U.S. Capitol” does not implicate their protected First Amendment Rights because they are being investigated for their involvement and not their political beliefs.
This is followed by again stating how “investigations into the conduct of law enforcement officers—including where claims of misconduct are not substantiated—are matters of vital public concern” especially when evaluating whether police oversight boards are working effectively.
The importance of public access to the names of the Doe Officers is linked to accountability and determining the efficacy of the disciplinary process, which is one of the reasons why the Seattle Police Dept. required all officers who attend the Rally to report their attendance.
These decisions filed by in the brief are in line with PRA’s mandate that courts must “‘take into account the policy . . . that free and open examination of public records is in the public interest, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.’”
The brief cited a variety of studies demonstrating the importance of police accountability and of public access to police and investigation records, specifically The Intercept’s Bad Chicago Cops Spread Their Misconduct Like a Disease.
The Intercept used names and records of police officers to conduct a study that ultimately exposed that “‘officers who had been exposed to the . . . misconduct-prone cops . . . went on to show complaint rates nine times higher over the next 10 years than those who hadn’t.’”
For all these reasons stated above, the brief ended with Amici urging the Washington Supreme Court to affirm the decision of King County Superior Court.
The Supreme Court is set to hear the case Nov. 9.