There was an interesting article on the Seattle Times website today regarding the Superior Court reversing an arbitrator decision regarding releasing the names of officers disciplined for misconduct. Essentially, the names of disciplined officers were requested under the public records act. The City used to provide this information with the names redacted for privacy reasons (a legitimate reason, if done properly) and effective law enforcement promotion.
Well, a few years back, the Washington Supreme Court decided a very similar issue and held that the names of teachers with substantiated claims against them for inappropriate behavior was in fact a public record. I’ll quote some of the opinion by Justice Fairhurst (not that I had any hand in drafting this at all…but I totes did):
Sexual abuse of children by school teachers is a terrible atrocity. Allegations of such abuse should be thoroughly investigated by school districts and, if the allegations are substantiated, the media may request records containing the identity of the perpetrating teacher. However, when such allegations are determined to be unsubstantiated, the identity of the teacher is exempt from disclosure to a public records request because such disclosure would violate the teacher’s right to privacy. Thus, we hold the identities of public school teachers who are subjects of unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct are exempt from disclosure under Washington’s public disclosure act (PDA), former chapter 42.17 RCW, amended and recodified as chapter 42.56 RCW (LAWS OF 2005, ch. 274).
Now, lets substitute police for teacher and “sexual abuse of children” with “misconduct” and see if it largely makes sense:
Misconduct by police is a terrible atrocity. Allegations of such misconduct should be thoroughly investigated by police departments and, if the allegations are substantiated, the media may request records containing the identity of the perpetrating officer. However, when such allegations are determined to be unsubstantiated, the identity of the officer is exempt from disclosure to a public records request because such disclosure would violate the officer’s right to privacy. Thus, we hold the identities of police officers who are subjects of unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct are exempt from disclosure under Washington’s public disclosure act (PDA), former chapter 42.17 RCW, amended and recodified as chapter 42.56 RCW (LAWS OF 2005, ch. 274).
I wonder if the Guild will appeal, or if they’ll realize that given the Washington Supreme Court’s current makeup, this order will likely stand and they will have paid a lot of money to their attorneys, and to the other side, for this appeal?
Interestingly, there are a lot of comments that if citizen’s have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear from the police. Unfortunately, this is not true. The very heart of the problem is there are instances where people had nothing to hide, yet plenty to fear. I have many friends who are fine, upstanding examples of what law enforcement needs to be. Its the officers who don’t live up to that standard that need to be monitored by the populous. Under the law, if the allegation is not substantiated, their identifying information should not be disclosed.
In other words, the Public Records Act allows the public access to track just this sort of thing, so that the public can remain vigilante over its government. Preventing tyranny and all that.