Rantz: Did Seattle councilmembers abuse police help, while defunding department?

May 11, 2022, 5:56 PM | Updated: May 12, 2022, 8:52 am
Police officers block a street as city crews dismantle the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) ar...
Police officers block a street as city crews dismantle the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) area outside of the Seattle Police Department's vacated East Precinct on July 1, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

As the Seattle City Council demonized cops back in 2020 during the mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter riots, were councilmembers secretly abusing access to the Seattle Police Department to get better security?

A tipster alleged that as the City Council defunded the police in response to anti-police activist demands, a handful of councilmembers were also working with the SPD to set up security systems at both their offices and their homes. That means, as the Council was making our communities more dangerous by cutting police officers, they were possibly benefiting from special treatment to keep themselves safe.

The results of my investigation may shock you.

Hypocrisy and abuse at the Seattle City Council?

After taking a deep dive into the allegations, here’s what I found: nothing.

I didn’t come up empty-handed because the story isn’t true. I have no idea whether or not it’s true. I get tips all the time that are either overstated or untrue. But I also get tips that sometimes underplay how serious the issue is.

In this case, I was stopped from doing a part of my job.

I got this tip on September 20th, 2020. On that day, I put in a public disclosure request to obtain any relevant documents so I could fact-check the claims. Maybe the story is legitimate and shows hypocrisy and abuse. Maybe the story is based on a false rumor.

Public disclosure requests (PDRs) allow the public or media access to documents that aren’t subject to attorney-client privilege or anything else that is legally kept a secret. Most documents that a public office or public agency creates or touches are subject to disclosure. It’s how we can hold powerful people accountable.

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Still no documents

The SPD public disclosure unit still hasn’t provided any documents. Other agencies, depending on the size and city, can take anywhere from two weeks to three months to respond to PDR requests. It’s been 20 months with the SPD.

They initially told me they anticipated sending the responsive document by 12/31/20. That date came and went. They said they needed more time, offering a new date of 02/23/21 to submit the documents.

On 03/11/21, the department wrote an email saying they needed more time. They said they’d get to me around 04/26/21.

“The Seattle Police Department needs additional time to respond to your request. Due to our current workload and backlog, we are still locating the records responsive to your request,” the staffer wrote.

The same routine followed for months. After missing a deadline, they’d say they needed more time to complete the search, though they gave me updates on their progress. Finally, on 04/26/22, they said they needed an additional month, with an added wrinkle.

“The Public Disclosure Officer (PDO) who was initially assigned to your request is out of the office on extended leave; as such, your request has been reassigned to a different PDO. Due to current staffing and workload, the response to your request may be delayed,” the new staffer wrote.

I won’t hold my breath to get the documents by the new promise of 05/27/22.

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This wait is unacceptable

As of March, there were only 12 public disclosure officers, with plans to hire two more. There’s only one communications analyst and three video specialists.

This is only slightly better than what it was in previous years. Yet, the department is being hit with an exponential number of PDR requests from the media and general public.

“The unit received 9620 PDRs in 2021, and has completed 7630 so far,” an SPD spokesperson told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH in March. “Year to year over this timeframe, PDRs have increased ten percent each year from the previous year.”

I don’t blame the PDR staff for the delay. The ones I’ve worked with at the SPD, and virtually every other agency, seem to work hard with what I imagine can be tedious work. And if they’re inundated with requests, it’s not their fault.

But waiting 20 months is wholly unacceptable and the SPD, Mayor, and Council should ensure a better-staffed department. The work of this staff is important.

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This delay is an affront to accountability and transparency

This is no longer a story about Council hypocrisy. It’s about accountability.

Fulfilling a PDR is supposed to be the government living up to a commitment to transparency; owning up to decisions or work that’s done in our name, paid for by tax dollars.

Government officials and spokespeople generally hate leaks. It causes them headaches and doesn’t always come with context. The latter complaint is valid. But we’re forced to rely on leaks with certain stories when this department isn’t able to do its job in a reasonable amount of time.

How is the public and the media supposed to hold government officials accountable if it takes 20 months to track something down that may no longer be relevant? It was relevant when the request was made initially.

We’ve gone through a Council and mayoral election in Seattle since the request was made and this story, if true, could have played a role in better informing the voters.

So who’s served with this kind of delay? The very people in power who don’t want to be held accountable.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: Did Seattle councilmembers abuse police help, while defunding department?