Investigating Washington State police departments & sheriffs ... Problems with HB-1888

I'm announcing an investigative data project involving police and sheriffs offices misconduct. But I'm running into issues with a new state privacy law, preventing speedy access to public information.

Sun 07 February 2021 ~ Brandon Roberts
A collage of all the different police agencies I've requested data from

A screenshot from my linux terminal workspace for my Washington Police and Sheriff's Office data and investigative project. I currently have 116 police and sheriff's agencies being records requested. I'm using a Django app I wrote to manage the intake, parsing and extraction of data from the various file types that agencies send over.

First a positive note: Since June of last year (2020) I've been in the process of requesting data from police departments and sheriff's offices across Washington State. I'm gathering internal investigations and other violations from as many departments across the state as I can. That number happens to be 116 currently, but I'm hoping to close the gaps with some of the smaller departments later this year when (hopefully) records laws stop being suspended as they have been through the pandemic. Right now, Seattle Police Department is the last big holdout. I have misconduct records for most departments for cities above 100k population, some going back as far as 2000.

The data that records clerks have sent me in response to my requests so far has varied, but here are the common types:

  • CSV or Excel files (so good! thank you clerks who make this happen)
  • CSV or Excel files turned into PDFs, but you can highlight the text in them (these can be extracted with tabula and my configuration generator tool)
  • Pictures of CSV or Excel files turned into PDFs (have to OCR it then use tabula)
  • Pictures of individual incidents that resulted in a written reprimand, suspension notice, entire investigation records (thousands of pages), etc
  • Emails (e.g., a police chief sends an email informing a city manager an officer has been terminated)
  • Outlook email files (basically the above, but in an annoying format)

Because of this, I've developed a suite of utilities to convert all of these into standardized CSV schemas. It's part automatic extraction tool, part data entry application.

Anyway, if you want to be notified about the progress of my investigation, sign up here. I'll send out an update with more information once I'm getting ready to release the data.

HB1888 🔗

HB1888, passed nearly unanimously in March 2020 by Washington State lawmakers. It requires notice be made to public agency employees when a public records request results in the release of personal information about a state employee. It also automatically exempts payroll deductions of public agency employees from public disclosure.

In the course of my investigation, I've been made aware clerks at police departments across the state have been instructed to interpret the law as follows: if any information identifying an officer (even a name) is about to be released, then the police union and the individual both need to be notified and given an opportunity to file an injunction stopping the release. If this happens, then you need to go to court and have a judge decide if releasing the information is in the public interest. This has a chilling effect on investigating police misconduct in two ways:

  • it puts extra work on clerks, who need to find the information of past employees
  • notifying large numbers of people makes obtaining bulk records, such as databases maintained by police departments, prohibitively time consuming

As a result of this, some of my requests are estimated to take over a year to fulfill. King County Sheriff's office has notified me they have over 16k records in their internal affairs database in need of going through, finding the contact information for the officer and making sure the appropriate notification periods have been met. I'm not convinced all of this extra work is legally necessary. But the only way to test this theory and potentially speed up this process would be though a lawyer.

I've reached out to the Washington Coalition for Open Government and I've talked to my colleagues at Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Seattle Times so maybe we can come to gether and get this fixed.