SEATTLE, WA – Overturning an arbitrator, a King County judge Tuesday ruled that the names of Seattle police officers disciplined for misconduct may be released under public-disclosure requests.
At issue was whether the names must be disclosed under the Public Records Act or kept confidential under the city’s collective-bargaining agreement with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).
Superior Court Judge Dean Lum, citing the public’s right to know the names, issued his ruling after listening to arguments from the guild and the city, which had sought the release of the names.
His decision comes at time when the Police Department is under intense scrutiny, particularly after the U.S. Justice Department found late last year that officers had routinely used excessive force on citizens.
In vacating the May 2011 decision favoring the guild, Lum said the collective-bargaining agreement “can’t trump state law,” adding, “That’s what happened here.”
He said the city had been put in an “impossible situation,” in which it would be required to violate explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy.
Assistant City Attorney Paul Olsen argued during the hearing that the Police Department was required to release the names, even if the union had managed to persuade the arbitrator to “keep secret” the identities.
Although there is no specific case law on the issue, Olsen said, state Supreme Court rulings in other cases had clearly laid out the changing landscape and the city’s obligations.
Even after the arbitrator’s decision, the Police Department has continued its policy of releasing the names of disciplined officers in response to public-disclosure requests filed by the news media and others.
City attorneys, who sought Superior Court review of arbitrator Paul Grace’s decision, asserted that state law requires disclosure of public records except in limited circumstances.
After Lum’s ruling, City Attorney Pete Holmes issued a statement, saying, “I’m grateful that Judge Lum agreed with our position that SPOG can’t force the City to sign away its obligations to be transparent and comply with the Public Records Act. Now we’ll work to ensure that all future contracts with SPOG are consistent with public records law.”
Guild attorney Hillary McClure told Lum that Grace correctly found the names can’t be released and that usurping his authority undermined public policy. She said the city was trying to get the court to inappropriately substitute its judgment.
Disclosing the names can lead to harassment of an officer, McClure said. She also cited a 1988 state Supreme Court decision permitting officers’ names to be withheld under an exemption to the records law.
McClure declined to comment after the hearing when asked if she would appeal Lum’s ruling.
Grace sided with the guild’s contention that the 2008 contract required the Police Department to continue its practice of withholding the names of disciplined officers.
The department began releasing the names in 2009, reversing a long-standing practice of redacting the names to guard their privacy and to protect effective law enforcement.
The new policy grew out of the city’s adoption of 29 recommendations of a citizens panel submitted in January 2008.
After the 2008 contract was signed that June, the Police Department determined new wording gave it greater latitude to release names.
But Grace, acting on a grievance brought by the guild, agreed the contract still required the city to continue its policy of withholding “personal identifying information” from disciplinary records.
He found the city didn’t inform the guild during contract negotiations of its plans to change the policy, and that the city had presented no new case law supporting its position.
Guild President Sgt. Rich O’Neill could not be reached for comment.
Names of officers cleared of misconduct allegations may be withheld from records.
From The Seattle Times.