Especially as Seattle grapples with questions of police reform and racial justice, the city’s police should welcome the opportunity to embrace public transparency.
Yet the Seattle Police Department is advising requesters that fulfilling their public-records requests will take as long as a year or more.
The SPD had 2,412 open-records requests as of Nov. 16, according to a department spokesperson. Officials had completed 6,202 requests since the beginning of the year.
Every public agency has the legal and ethical responsibility to ensure members of the public have access to public records. Taxpayers and citizens have a right to see how work is being done in the public interest. Transparency helps protect against corruption, ineptitude and waste.
But according to the SPD, records requests are piling up because of staffing shortages, redeployment of supporting units to front-line COVID-19 response and remote working conditions.
Although the public has a legal right to inspect public records, Washington law does not require the keepers of those records to supply them within any specific time frame. The law allows the public agency to respond within five days with a “reasonable estimate” of when the requested documents will be provided.
The SPD’s current estimate is a minimum response time of 6-12 months or longer, depending on the volume and complexity of requests. The department is on track to receive around 9,000 total records requests this year, the spokesperson said.
Finding the resources to accommodate those requests should be among the department’s top priorities. Transparency is fundamental to democracy. It also seeds public confidence and understanding in the workings of public agencies.
Especially during these challenging times, the police department should be eager to show its public how the work is done.