In settlement of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has agreed to improve its policies for handling requests for documents by the public. The ACLU sued the SPD in 2001 for violating the state Public Disclosure Act by failing to disclose a key document relating to police enforcement of the City's "no protest zone" during the World Trade Organization demonstrations in 1999. Under the revised policy, the SPD has established clearer procedures for responding to public disclosure requests and will inform people making requests where the Department has searched for documents.
"Washington's public records law is a vital tool citizens rely on to ensure government accountability. The changes agreed to by the police department should improve significantly its response to citizen requests for documents," said ACLU Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.
On Dec. 1, 1999, the SPD issued an Operations Order describing how officers were to enforce the Mayor's WTO Emergency Order No. 3 (known as the Ferguson Order), which established a "no protest zone." The order clearly stated that shopping was among the "reasonable" purposes for which vehicles and pedestrians were authorized to enter the zone. During oral argument, however, in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the "no protest zone," the City claimed, "Shoppers, casual shoppers, are not permitted entry. Casual restaurant goers, window shoppers are not permitted entry."
The ACLU sent a public records request to the Mayor's office and the Chief of Police asking for any documents containing instructions for enforcing the emergency orders. The Department released nine documents but did not release the Ferguson Order. Surprised that there seemed to be so little information on enforcement of the "no protest zone," the ACLU sent a follow-up letter asking for confirmation that no other relevant documents existed. The Seattle Police Department responded by saying, "Please accept this as written confirmation of that fact: there are no other documents … which contain instructions to officers about how to enforce the mayor's proclamations."
The requested document was never provided directly to the ACLU. Rather, the ACLU only learned of the Ferguson Order's existence a year after it was requested - after it had been provided to the City Council's WTO Accountability Review Committee. The Committee had received the document not from the Seattle Police Department, but in response to a public disclosure request it made to the Washington State Patrol.
If documents responsive to a public disclosure request exist, an agency must either make them available or explain what legal grounds exist for an exemption from disclosure. Under the agreement, the SPD will have a designated staff member responsible for distributing and tracking records requests. A checklist will be maintained to document which units are asked to search for and retrieve records. In its response to citizens requesting documents, the SPD now will identify where it has located or searched for the documents.
The City of Seattle agreed to pay $9,500 to the ACLU for attorneys' fees and court costs and $1,600 in statutory penalties. Cooperating attorneys Scott Johnson and Laura Buckland handled the case for the ACLU.