Aug 22, 2022 - News

Seattle Police's backlog of open record requests now over 2,800

Animated illustration of a manila folder being slowly covered by red tape.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The Seattle Police Department's slow responses to public records requests persist, with the agency now taking months — sometimes longer — to turn over records that could shine a light on its inner-workings.

Yes, but: An SPD spokesperson told Axios the department's responses have improved since last year — down from an average of 87 days to 79 days to close requests.

Why it matters: Washington's Public Records Act requires government agencies provide "prompt responses" to records requests under the law that guarantees citizens "do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

State of play: SPD's public records portal still greets requesters with a boilerplate notice citing Gov. Jay Inslee's since-rescinded pandemic emergency order, warning prospective requesters of the potential for a "slower than anticipated response."

The latest: As of last Thursday, SPD said it received 7,667 requests this year and closed out 5,765 of them, leaving a current backlog of more than 2,800 open requests.

What they're saying: "We think there is a serious, systemic problem in the city of Seattle in terms of its transparency," Michael Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told Axios.

The other side: "We would love to be faster and more responsive (to requesters) … but that just has not been in the cards according to budget," SPD spokesperson Detective Valerie Carson told Axios.

  • SPD receives more than half of all records requests submitted citywide, per the mayor's office.
  • The volume combined with new complexities — including multiple new digital data sources holding records — requires more time and expertise to respond to seemingly simple requests, Carson said.

Zoom out: SPD received funding to add four public disclosure officers and one technical support employee since last year, bringing the number of employees devoted to records requests to 18, Carson said.

  • A proposal to fund another tech worker devoted to email searches wasn't approved last year, however.

👋 Lewis here: Since I joined Axios in March, SPD has yet to provide a single document in response to any of five records requests I've submitted. That includes a request for a two-page email made in May.

  • I also had multiple outstanding requests with SPD — including several still open after more than a year — when I left The Seattle Times.

Context: This problem is not new.

Last year, SPD — which owns the biggest budget of any city department at $363 million — cited staff and funding shortages for rampant delays as it warned that requests could take 6–12 months to fulfill.

Background: SPD's laggardness in responding to requests persists at a time when a host of key issues face the department — from widespread scrutiny of budget practices and ongoing police reforms, to a looming decision for hiring a permanent police chief.

Meanwhile, council member Lisa Herbold, who told Axios she has pushed to increase SPD staffing for handling requests, said she's "hopeful and eager" to work with Mayor Bruce Harrell to ensure the additional staffer devoted to email searches is included in his forthcoming budget plan.

  • A spokesperson for Harrell's office told Axios in an email the city now spends more than $14 million and employs 70+ workers in over 38 city departments to handle the 15,000–16,000 requests received annually.
  • Harrell "supports continued efforts to improve SPD fulfillment times," the spokesperson added.
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