Spokane police chief opposed to posting full internal investigations, body camera video online
July 9, 2018 Updated Mon., July 9, 2018 at 9:41 p.m.
Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said Monday he’s opposed to an ordinance that would allow the city to post some internal affairs and officer-involved shooting investigations online.
A decision on the proposal, backed by City Councilman Breean Beggs, was put on hold for two weeks not because of opposition by Meidl, but to allow the city’s technology staff to review records that had previously been published online.
The ordinance would give those requesting records of internal affairs matters, officer-involved shootings and uses of force by police the option of having the information posted directly to the city’s website, rather than receiving them as an individual.
Meidl said many internal affairs complaints are determined to be false or unfounded through investigation and he’s concerned about the impact to officer morale if details of unfounded complaints were freely available online with officers’ names attached.
“Our employees, who are our most valuable asset, feel that the posting of these IAs is humiliating, it’s embarrassing. It tarnishes the reputation of not only the officers but also the police department,” Meidl said.
Spokane police used to post redacted internal affairs reports on the department website but removed those records in fall 2015 after realizing some of them did not redact private information, including phone numbers and Social Security numbers.
Though any individual requester could receive a report and publish it on their own website, Meidl said, publishing those reports on the municipal site opens the city up to legal liability if a report is improperly redacted or private information is released.
Internal investigations typically include the full police report from the underlying crime or incident, as well as body camera video if responding officers were wearing cameras.
In spring 2016, the department instead began posting two-page summaries of internal affairs complaints, which include the nature of the complaint and outcome of the investigation but do not name the person who filed the complaint or the accused employee.
Beggs, who proposed the new ordinance, said it was removed from Monday’s agenda following discussions with members of the police union, who, according to Beggs, disputed that full investigations had ever been posted on the city website.
Council members agreed Monday to postpone a vote on the ordinance until July 23. Beggs said that would give the city’s IT department time to retrieve old webpages that would show how much of the internal affairs reports were previously posted online.
“I have a memory of it, but rather than rely on our memories, we’ll go back and get the full cache from the website,” Beggs said. “My recollection is they posted the full investigations.”
John Griffin, the president of the Spokane Police Guild, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday evening.
Beggs has previously said the ordinance would save the city time and money in cases in which multiple people request the same report, and would provide greater transparency than the short summaries currently available.
Records specialists are among the police department staff most likely to accrue overtime because of a backlog of requests. In 2017, the 34 city employees handling police records earned $168,239 in overtime pay. That’s down from 2016, when 32 employees earned $254,856 in after-hours pay.
City spokeswoman Michelle Anderson said those records specialists field about 300 requests each month.
Meidl said multiple requesters often ask for records related to high-profile crimes and officer-involved shootings. He said the total number of requests is typically around five or 10 for the same incident.
As written, the ordinance would allow someone making an internal affairs complaint through the police ombudsman’s office to ask that the complaint not be posted online. People making a complaint directly to the police department would not have that option, Beggs said, so police wouldn’t be able to pressure people into saying they didn’t want it posted.
Meidl said he was concerned that safeguard was not enough to protect victim privacy because complaints may be filed by witnesses or bystanders to an event. If a friend saw Meidl being treated poorly by an officer and filed a complaint about it, Meidl said his information could still end up on the city website without his consent.
“Nobody asked me, as the victim, if I wanted it posted. Nobody asked the officer if they want it posted,” he said.
He said he’s not necessarily opposed to posting information about officer-involved shootings online once it’s requested. Currently, the department releases reports, body camera video and the results of the investigation into those shootings at a news conference, then posts footage of the news conference online.
Media present at the event receive a CD with the reports and footage and often post that information on their websites, but it’s not directly available to the general public without filing a request.
Meidl said he’d be concerned about the emotional impact for family and friends if the city posted video footage of police shooting and possibly killing their loved one.
“You have family members, you have friends, you have others who understandably are probably going to have issue with their loved one being posted for all the world to see,” he said. “Not to diminish the importance of transparency in officer-involved shootings, but it would feel to me like you were posting … for someone’s entertainment.”
Meidl said he had planned to testify at Monday’s City Council meeting in opposition to the ordinance. He said he’s open to expanding the department’s summaries of internal affairs investigations but believes victim and officer names should not be posted.
Spokesman-Review reporter Chad Sokol contributed to this report.
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