There should be universal access to public records

With their votes, state lawmakers have created two classes of citizens in this state when it comes to gaining access to certain information about law enforcement employees — members of the news media who will have access to the records and the general public who won’t.

That’s wrong. A public record is a public record. If available to some, it should be available to all.

Legislators were wrong when they passed House Bill 1317 and Gov. Chris Gregoire was wrong when she signed it into law.

Unfortunately, this is a case of overreaction in the wake of the horrible murder of four Lakewood police officers late last year. This bill — and the motivation behind it — was flawed from the outset.

Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquium, House majority leader who is generally an advocate for open public records, was the prime sponsor of HB 1317. The measure puts off limits to public inspection, the photograph, month and year of birth found in records of employees in criminal justice agencies such as police and sheriff departments.

In an embarrassing admission to The Seattle Times, Kessler said the law really won’t accomplish much. “To me it’s symbolic,” Kessler said. “It’s to say, we appreciate you.”

So now Washington lawmakers are passing symbolic laws to say, “We appreciate you?”

That’s not right.

Existing law already protects the home addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers from public disclosure. Birth dates, however, are vitally important, and the public can have legitimate needs for the photographs of officers.

After Tacoma Police Chief David Brame killed his wife in a 2003 domestic violence incident, reporters for The Seattle Times used officers’ dates of birth to verify how other law enforcement officers were protected after abusing their wives. Times editors said those dates of birth were essential in identifying officers with common names and proving the cases against them.

Those who testified in support of House Bill 1317 constructed arguments made of straw that did not withstand public scrutiny.

For example, a police and sheriff lobbyist said Lakewood police were “barraged with requests” for the Social Security numbers of the children of the slain officers.

That came as news to Lakewood police officials who said they only got one public records request, and that came from the insurance company representing the coffee shop where the officers were gunned down.

That same police lobbyist also testified that Lakewood officers were followed to their homes by relatives of Maurice Clemmons, the man who shot the officers and was later killed by a Seattle Police officer.

Our sister newspaper, The News Tribune in Tacoma investigated but could find nothing to back up the claim.

The suspect testimony wasn’t the worst of it. Supporters of House Bill 1317 admit that some of the information they are putting off limits to the public is readily available via other sources. There are companies on the Internet that — for a fee — provide birth dates, addresses and other private information about police officers and everyone else.

“If a criminal has a computer, they could probably Google them,” Kessler admitted.

Faced with strong opposition from the news media and the actual cases where the public records have been used to expose wrongdoing, lawmakers carved out an exemption in the law — allowing members of the media to have the records but not the general public. That exemption creates two classes of requesters — a dangerous precedence in public disclosure law.

Who is squeezed out? It’s the private citizen who is treated rudely or even assaulted by a police officer who refuses to disclose his name or badge number.

A scan of police officer photographs could quickly identify the suspect officer. But citizens won’t have access to those photos.

Under the law, members of the news media and the general public should have equal access to public records. By passing House Bill 1317, lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire have turned millions of Washington residents into second-class citizens.

And that’s just plain wrong.