But keeping government open and honest is a job for every citizen, not just members of the press….Others have the right to raise hell, and getting access to public records is key to that end.
No, that quote isn’t from some rabble-rousing blogger or City Hall activist. It was written in 1991 by Suzanne Downing, then the editor of the Bainbridge Review. In an editorial explaining public records laws, she observed, “Getting permission to view documents can sometimes be a test of the civility of our civil servants. Certain agencies are known to be downright rude to those requesting public records. ”
Bravo, Suzanne. I may send your piece to the Bainbridge Island Police Department.
Last month, after writing about the police misconduct claim filed by Kim Koenig because of an incident with BIPD Officer Steve Cain, I made a public records request for copies of the investigations of the incident done by two outside police agencies, as well as records of any other complaints against Cain.
I spent a couple of hours last week at the police station, reading the criminal investigation done by the Puyallup Police Department. Before the City could release the internal investigation done by the Mercer Island Police Department, Officer Cain, and his union, the Bainbridge Island Police Guild, filed suit against the City and me to prevent disclosure of the file.
I wasn’t surprised that Cain doesn’t want his records released. What did surprise me is the defensive tone Deputy Chief Mark Duncan took with me yesterday when I called to ask questions about the department’s record-keeping and other policies. I’ve spoken with him on several occasions over the 18 months he’s been with the department and found him to be a smooth, articulate spokesman for the police. As recently as last fall, he so convincingly answered my questions, I shelved the story I’d been planning to write.
Not this time.
Duncan was understandably tight-lipped about department procedure because the City is involved in two legal controversies over the Koenig incident–her claim for damages and Cain’s lawsuit to prevent a release of documents to me. Duncan and I sparred briefly over what I viewed as his excessive parsing and hair-splitting. (I’ll write a piece about what was in the records, including some of his responses, in the near future.)
Twice I acknowledged the awkwardness of my questions for the police department, in what I meant as a conciliatory way. He then said I had started the whole thing, by requesting the records. He blamed me for attracting media attention to the incident, because neither newspaper had covered the Koenig claim before I wrote about it on this blog. He complained about the one-sided coverage, though it wasn’t clear whether he meant mine or the newspapers’. (At one point he scolded me for putting words in his mouth. This summary is doing exactly that, based on my recollection of the conversation. So be it.)
Duncan apparently doesn’t appreciate the legal framework of our state, which has established a strong policy for disclosure of public records. As the Public Records Act provides:
The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, 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.
With limited exceptions, the Public Records Act insists that the government’s business is the people’s business. The Act’s exemptions recognize that a few specified records should not be made public. Among them are names of witnesses to a crime, private trade secrets and health care information. I don’t believe Officer Cain’s records in the Mercer Island investigation are covered by an exemption and will continue to pursue disclosure unless a court tells me they’re exempt, or our respective attorneys work out an agreement. That’s how the law works and I like to obey the law.
At a time when community scrutiny of local government is extraordinarily high, the BIPD has been largely left alone. Unlike the Seattle press, our local media stories about the police are few and uniformly positive. It’s unseemly, to say the least, that the police department would bristle at a modest attempt to shine some light on its inner workings.
Duncan might take a few pointers from City Clerk Roz Lassoff or City Attorney Paul McMurray. Both of them are swamped with public records requests from not-always-polite citizens, yet they are unfailingly hardworking, helpful and professional.
When a public official takes offense over basic questions about his domain, my news nose starts itching. I’m not the only islander who finds it newsworthy when a middle-aged mom and lawyer, with no criminal record, is roughed up during a traffic stop. And regardless of whose fault it turns out to be, the Puyallup investigation shows, with witnesses and photos, that Kim Koenig was bruised up that night.
I hate to get on the wrong side of a bunch of people packing guns, with a lot of legal authority that the rest of us don’t have. But it’s too late to worry about that.
And it won’t stop me from reporting on the Cain/Koenig investigations.