SEATTLE – For two months, Ailise Delaney waited for a police report, a simple and routinely accessible document she hoped would help a woman seek a protection order in a domestic violence case.
But a Seattle police account of what happened one night in June when they responded to a 911 call didn’t arrive in time, forcing Delaney, an attorney with the Eastside Legal Assistance Program, to move forward in court without it.
“Not even being given the option to present that to the court is really upsetting,” Delaney said. “And trying to explain to a client why we don’t have this information or why we won’t be able to get it is really difficult a lot of times.”
Under Washington state law, public agencies are required to provide an array of documents to anyone who requests them within certain timelines.
But during the coronavirus pandemic, wait times for public records at the Seattle Police Department and many other state and local agencies have lasted for months, deepening concern about government transparency at a critical time.
Some officials estimate that records won’t be released well into next year, while several acknowledge the pandemic has contributed to backlogs.
“Many of the people who usually help provide these responsive answers are currently focused on the COVID-19 response work, which is massive,” said Lisa Stromme Warren, a spokesperson for Washington state Department of Health.
Warren said the agency aimed to hire more staff to help with the “unprecedented amount of work.” In one response, DOH told the Seattle Times it expected it could provide data related to outbreaks at schools and universities by July 2021.
In Washington and elsewhere, the consequences of the delays have meant that information isn’t always available to the public as developments unfold in a year of shifting coronavirus hot spots, rapidly developing science and historic protests over racial injustice and police accountability.
While wait times for public records aren’t new for DOH or other agencies, the need for information seems to have grown more pressing.
“It’s now more important than ever for the public to be fully informed about the government, particularly related to how the government is responding to COVID,” said Katherine George, a Seattle attorney who is a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “The fact that there’s a pandemic actually – arguably anyway – increases the public’s need for information because it’s an emergency.”
When the Seattle Times asked multiple agencies for data showing how long it takes to resolve public records requests, some expected it might take weeks – if not longer – to provide that information, too.
Seattle, however, offered a clearer look at challenges at the local level. Through late October, city departments took an average of more than 47 days – over six weeks – to resolve records requests so far this year, a full workweek longer than the city’s 2019 average of 42 days.
Within SPD, the backlog was especially steep, following months of daily protests this year that have refocused public attention on police accountability.
Since March, SPD has told those who submit requests that they may have to wait six months to a year to receive the records. The estimate is included in auto-reply emails sent to people after they enter a request, often prompting concern over wait time.
But the agency often releases documents sooner than six months, said Rebecca Boatright, SPD’s executive director of legal affairs.
SPD has received more than 7,200 records requests in 2020 – far more than any other agency. More than 2,400 requests remained open as of Nov. 20, although some of those requests had at least been partially fulfilled, Boatright said.
SPD would need more staffers to tackle the backlog more efficiently,” Boatright said. “We’re doing the best that we can with the staff we had available.”
In Delaney’s case, the police department offered its routine estimate of six months to a year for fulfilling her records request, attributing it to an “extreme backlog” in requests, staffing shortages and struggles in supporting “SPD’s front-line COVID-19 response.”
SPD said crime victims seeking reports related to their own cases can bypass the line and go directly to the department’s records office. SPD tries to redirect crime victims there when staff discover they’ve submitted a public disclosure request, Boatright said.
That didn’t happen with Delaney’s client, who has yet to receive the police report. If SPD has a process that allows victims to get reports faster, then it could do more to make that known, Delaney said.
Ethan Campbell, a member of Central Seattle Greenways, which advocates for safe streets, said he also encountered a long wait for records from SPD.
He sought records in July to find out whether law enforcement disproportionately singles out people of color while issuing bike infractions.
He is still waiting for the records, while the King County Sheriff’s Office provided similar documents months ago, he said.
“More than anything, it’s just undermined my confidence in the Police Department’s transparency and openness,” he said.
Not surprisingly, public agencies are giving pandemic-related reasons for slower records responses, though that doesn’t mean they are entirely justified under the state’s public disclosure law, or even related emergency orders that have been issued this year.
In March, Gov. Jay Inslee suspended portions of the state’s open records law, putting in place temporary restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. He suspended the public’s right to inspect records in person, although copies of records can still be sent by email or the postal service.
Inslee also relaxed the mandated timeline for an initial response to mailed requests, saying agencies can take more than the five days that the law requires. But the five-day deadline still applies to requests sent via email or through an agency’s online records portal, and agencies still must provide within five days a reasonable date for records to be produced.
This year, the Seattle Times has used public documents for a range of reporting, including to monitor public officials’ response to coronavirus outbreaks at the Life Care Center of Kirkland and throughout the Puget Sound region, as well as in coverage of police officers’ use of force, which has sparked widespread protests.
But there have also been numerous instances in which records were withheld or not released soon enough to deliver information that had been in the public interest.
One such case emerged several months ago when the Times requested records from DOH amid swirling questions over coronavirus self-testing kits for the coronavirus.
In mid-May, the possibility of an at-home test was still novel. A reporter requested a copy of the department’s authorization for the method pioneered by the Seattle Flu Study, since it could help show how the state determined the approach was safe and effective.
There was no question the document should have been made available as a public record, but it was not released.
Amid the delays, there is also inconsistency across agencies.
For example, Public Health – Seattle & King County released data in August that detailed information about coronavirus cases while redacting private information about those who had tested positive for the disease.
After receiving two requests for the information in March, the DOH said in July it would release the data – for $9,100 in fees associated with the time it would take to produce it.
In June, the Employment Security Department said it would need until late October to release records to the Seattle Times showing four months’ worth of Commissioner Suzi LeVine’s calendar, during a period in which her agency was battered by a massive number of fraudulent claims and delays in processing requests for jobless claims.
The department provided some records Wednesday showing a limited set of LeVine’s calendar appointments, but said it would take months to complete the request.
By contrast, the governor’s office is typically able to release Inslee’s calendar within days to those who request it.
For Delaney’s client, the wait for the single public document cast extra uncertainty over the case.
In the end, the client obtained the protective order she was seeking. But the anxiety that came with waiting for it seemed unnecessary, Delaney said.
Such records so often help in building credibility for victims by aligning their accounts with those of police officers.
“It’s invaluable,” Delaney said. “It really can just help prove credibility for your client.”
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