Eric Rachner, who won a judgment against the Seattle Police Department for denying it had dashboard-camera recordings of his arrest, has sued SPD and has activated a website where anyone can search for dash-cam videos of their own arrest.
Eric Rachner is doing everything he can to make the Seattle Police Department regret his arrest three years ago while playing a game of “urban golf” on Capitol Hill.
Even though the charges were dismissed, the 35-year-old owner of a computer-security company has dedicated his expertise to expose what he says are gaping holes in the Police Department’s public-disclosure and video-retention policies. In 2010, he won a $60,000 public-disclosure judgment against the department for denying it had dashboard-camera recordings of his arrest as well as logs of the recordings, when it did.
He has used much of that money in a three-year legal fight with the department.
On Wednesday, Rachner sued the department and officers involved in his 2008 arrest, alleging false arrest, malicious prosecution and “spoliation of video evidence.”
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The 58-page complaint, filed in King County Superior Court, alleges the department’s policies and procedures governing the use of dashboard cameras on police cruisers have “subverted the purpose of the in-car video system and turned it from a system to disclose and remedy conduct, into a system that operated to conceal and promote misconduct.”
As part of the public-disclosure judgment, Rachner and his attorney, Cleveland Stockmeyer, obtained logs of every dash-cam video shot by Seattle patrol officers from July 2008 through August 2011. Rachner’s detailed analysis of the more than 714,000 entries, which contain officer information, date and time of the incident and other data, forms the backbone of his lawsuit.
Rachner has activated a website, www.seattlepolicevideo.com, where any citizen who has had a run-in with the Seattle police can search part of that database, by officer name or badge number, to determine whether video of the incident exists. The idea is that they can challenge any conviction if they find video existed and the department said it didn’t, or if it wasn’t turned over as part of a criminal case.
“They might find, as we did in Eric’s case, that the video and the police reports were so at odds that they might as well have been from different incidents,” Stockmeyer said.
Pub crawl goes wrong
All of this sprang from what Rachner described as “an urban-golf pub-crawl” on Capitol Hill, on Oct. 18, 2008. Rachner and a group of computer-security experts from around the country, in Seattle at the behest of Microsoft, were stopped by police while swatting giant sponge golf balls from bar to bar.
Rachner and another man, David Hulton, were arrested. Hulton is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Police allege that Rachner’s refusal to identify himself amounted to obstruction of justice, although the law states that such a refusal is not in itself grounds for arrest. He was charged after he filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the department’s citizen-run internal investigation unit.
In the course of the prosecution, he obtained one video of the incident but would later learn that six others were not turned over.
Charges were eventually dismissed for “proof problems,” according to court documents.
Rachner pursued the incident, eventually obtaining several of the withheld videos.
The lawsuit alleges the arresting officer, Michele Letizia, can be heard telling other officers that he had “arrested Rachner because Rachner had acted ‘edjumicated,'” a mocking mispronunciation of “educated.”
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, Seattle police spokesman, said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it, although he said the department disagrees with any assertion that the dash-cam system is used to subvert officer accountability.
However, he said the department “applauds” Rachner for setting up the website.
“We believe that all information, once it has served its law-enforcement function, should be public,” he said. “I think we’ve already seen that with this lawsuit and others that there is going to be some growth in the department over this issue.”
Were videos withheld from feds?
Rachner and Stockmeyer, in analyzing the data, allege that what happened was not an anomaly, but the norm.
They claim the department routinely says it does not have videos when it does, or denies releasing it under a Catch-22 interpretation of public-disclosure laws that allows the videos to be withheld for up to three years — the statute of limitation for filing a civil lawsuit. Coincidentally, Rachner said, the department has a three-year video-retention policy.
“So what happens is that you can’t get the video until it’s gone,” he said.
The data have allowed Rachner to determine which videos were sought by OPA — usually after someone has complained — and which of those have been requested by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as part of its investigation into allegations of biased policing and excessive use of force leveled against the department by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and a coalition of community groups.
Rachner says he can show that the department did not turn over every video from incidents apparently being reviewed by the DOJ.
An example, he said, is the incident in which an officer threatened to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a suspect. Rachner said the DOJ got one department video of that incident, but the logs show that there are six other videos from that incident that were not turned over.
It’s like “using Netflix”
The video system was installed over a period of years by Seattle police at the behest of the City Council, the mayor and citizen panels formed to look at police discipline. Every police cruiser now has a camera mounted on its dashboard, and every patrol officer carries a small microphone that picks up audio, according to the police department.
While the cameras record onto a hard drive constantly, events are marked when an officer activates his overhead light bar or flips a switch in the car. Those events are then logged by officer badge number, time and date and uploaded to a server either automatically by Wi-Fi or by hand, according to Rachner, who obtained operation manuals from the manufacturer and talked to others familiar with the system.
Officers are supposed to activate the camera and audio during every citizen encounter, according to Seattle police policy, but Rachner says his research shows they often don’t.
The lawsuit alleges that the department has routinely denied the existence of activity logs of dash-cam videos, even though Rachner had researched the department’s system and says they existed. He and Stockmeyer also claim that the department routinely tells inquiring citizens that the system is not easily searchable. Stockmeyer said that’s not true.
“It’s about as hard as using Netflix,” he said.
Rachner also points out that videos are routinely uploaded to OPA and that even officers are sometimes given copies of dash-cam video. But if a citizen or a defense attorney asks, he said, it’s another thing.
“Policy” of concealment alleged
The lawsuit alleges the department “has had a policy and custom to falsely conceal video when it is requested” and from hiding the existence of the activity logs.
Stockmeyer said the practice could pose serious legal problems, including new trials, particularly if someone charged with a crime or his/her attorney asked for video and was told it did not exist. Rachner said he’s already identified a “couple of dozen” cases where an individual was convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes where video existed but was never pulled. It is not clear in any of those cases whether it was sought.
Rachner said he suggested to both the police department and City Attorney Peter Holmes that they review past requests for video and fix mistakes that exist, but according to the lawsuit they declined.
Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for Holmes, said the city attorney’s office has not seen the lawsuit. Holmes was out of town but likely would not comment on pending litigation, she said. She added, however, that she did attend a meeting with Holmes, Rachner and his attorney, but could not discuss the content of the discussion.
That’s when Rachner, who owns a boutique international computer-security firm in a loft on Capitol Hill, decided he’d post some of the data available online for anyone to see.
His research already has resulted in another public-disclosure lawsuit against the department: KOMO-TV sued SPD last month for withholding dash-cam logs from a reporter who was variously told they did not exist or were too hard to obtain — even though she learned later that Rachner had them and they were easily searchable.
Rachner’s research also revealed that the department lost forever some 14,000 videos in December 2008 — nearly a fifth of all the videos in the system at the time. In all, Rachner alleges the department lost 45,000 videos in three years.
“SPD has hidden this fact from the public and defendants who might need videos to prove what happened in their encounter with officers,” the lawsuit said. Stockmeyer questions whether the loss of videos should have been reported to defense attorneys or defendants involved in incidents where the video disappeared.
He and Rachner allege other, unreported video losses have occurred.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org