A King County court commissioner granted an emergency order Wednesday temporarily blocking the City of Seattle from disclosing records that would have identified six Seattle police officers who attended the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C. last month that led to a deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol.
Superior Court Commissioner Bradford Moore’s temporary restraining order — sought by the officers referred to in legal pleadings as “Plaintiffs John and Jane Does 1 through 6” — stops the city’s planned release of investigation and personnel information in response to four different public-records requests until March 10, when a judge is set to decide whether to grant the officers a permanent injunction.
Had the officers not obtained the order by 5 p.m. Thursday, Assistant City Attorney Carolyn Boies said the city was prepared to release the records on Friday to four individuals, including a KOMO news reporter, who separately had requested the records under the state’s Public Records Act.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday seeking the restraining order, all of the officers acknowledged they attended the so-called “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, staged in protest of the presidential-election results, as an exercise of “their constitutional rights to free speech.”
But the suit and the officers’ attorney, Kelly Sheridan, claim none of the officers participated in the riot at the Capitol afterward, or in any wrongdoing of any kind.
The siege — which left the Capitol ransacked, prompted lawmakers to flee for their safety and led to the deaths of five people, including a federal police officer — has resulted in an ongoing FBI investigation, with arrests and charges against multiple defendants including scores of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and others with ties to extremist groups.
Two days after the Capitol riot, when images surfaced on social media of two local officers at the rally, the Seattle Police Department ordered any officer who had attended the event to self-report their participation. The department and the city’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) since have announced that six officers known to have attended the event are being investigated to determine if they engaged in criminal activities or violated department policy. Chief Adrian Diaz also has said he would fire any officer found to have engaged in criminal conduct at the Capitol.
Each of the six officers, who Sheridan said Wednesday self-disclosed his or her attendance at the rally, is now on leave while the investigation remains ongoing.
During Wednesday’s hearing before Moore, Sheridan argued the officers would be targeted, harassed and suffer irreparable harm to their privacy, safety, reputation and constitutional rights if records revealing their identities were released before the internal investigation is finished.
“If the records are prematurely released prior to any allegations being substantiated … they will be associated with the rioters and branded as criminals or extremists,” he said.
Sheridan also contended because the records are part of an “ongoing investigation,” they should not be disclosed under exemptions to the records law that bar release of records related to an open investigation. Unless and until allegations of wrongdoing are proven, “there’s no legitimate public interest in knowing which employees attended a political rally,” Sheridan said.
“That’s not a valid use of the Public Records Act,” he added.
But Boies said some of the information sought that identifies the officers did not fall under the blanket open-investigation exemption.
“We’re required to err on the side of transparency,” Boies said. “For us, we didn’t see that there was the kind of controlling case law that would cause the police department to do anything other than satisfy the mandate of the Public Records Act.”
Moore found that the officers had met at least the threshold for a temporary order, agreeing with points raised by Sheridan that release of the records posed potential privacy and constitutional concerns.
“The truth of the matter is, but for the fact that this riot occurred and the OPA sought to do these investigations … there would’ve been no records in existence for the parties to request,” Moore said. “I think it is a real troubling issue to have disclosure of people’s political affiliations in the absence of the completion of an investigation.”
The city voluntarily provided the officers with the third-party notice, which isn’t mandatory under Washington’s records law, to give them the opportunity to try to stop the records from being disclosed to the four requesters: Jerome Drescher, Anne Block, Sam Sueoka and KOMO reporter Cristi Landes.
Only Sueoka announced his presence at Wednesday’s hearing, which took place over Zoom video conference. A lawyer representing him told Moore that because she and her client hadn’t had time to examine the issue in a substantive way, Sueoka “does not object to having a temporary order until the March 10th hearing.”
Since the officers filed their suit this week, the city and Sheridan have received numerous similar requests, or notices of existing ones, seeking records pertaining to the officers. The Seattle Times, which previously had submitted at least two requests related to officers who attended the rally, was among those to file additional requests Wednesday.
Government-transparency activist Lori Shavlik, who attended the hearing, told Moore that she had made a similar request. She said the request wasn’t politically motivated and simply sought “public records that I have a right to.”
“This is a public interest,” she said, adding a restraining order would “harm other people that have requests.”
But Moore limited his order only to the four requests in question, declining Boies’ suggestion to apply it more broadly to cover similar requests.