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Beggs proposes that all responses to city records requests be posted online

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 18, 2021

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs. (COLIN MULVANY)

A proposed city law aims to make Spokane’s public records more readily accessible to the public.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs introduced a new law on Monday that would require the results of public records requests to be posted on the city website.

For example, when a person files a request for the results of an Internal Affairs investigation into a Spokane police officer, the new law would require that the city not only provide the requester with the information, but post it online for everyone to see.

Records clerks would continue to redact sensitive information from public records in accordance with state law.

Beggs said the intent of the law is to make it easy for people – and ensure you don’t have to be an expert – to access public records.

“Once the city has spent the money to redact it, why not have it as broadly accessible as possible?” Beggs asked.

Councilman Michael Cathcart also supports the law. He said the government should emphasize “transparency in what it does.”

“Anything we can do to improve public records access I think is really important,” Cathcart said.

Valid concerns about the legislation have been raised by people in the police department and in City Hall, Beggs acknowledged. But the council leader said he’s “confident that we can work through” the outstanding issues.

The police department has also pledged to continue talks about the ordinance.

Police officials note that the level of redaction of sensitive information can depend on who is requesting the document. The victim of a crime, for example, is legally entitled to records with fewer redactions.

Julie Humphreys, a spokesperson for the police department, said it values transparency but wants to be sensitive to victims and people unrelated to the incident in question.

“The Spokane Police Department has concerns about posting entire complaints and uses of force online because of the unintended consequences of doing so,” Humphreys wrote in an email. “We are working collaboratively with Council President Beggs, City Legal, and the City Clerk’s Office to craft language for the proposed ordinance that takes those consequences into account.”

Humphreys cited an example from several years of a woman whose name was included in a use-of-force report posted online.

“The woman stated she and her husband were ‘innocent bystanders’ to the incident and were subjected to continued pain and judgment when their private information around a mental health issue was posted for all to see,” Humphreys wrote. “While the use of force had been properly redacted, individuals in the report were still identifiable based on information that was not redacted.”

The law would not mandate that any and all public records are posted online; only those that are made available in response to a specific public records request.

Beggs said the police department used to post the results of internal affairs investigations online by default, until that practice ended in 2016. It still posts summaries use of force investigations online.

Beggs acknowledged the city would likely have to make an exception to the law for victims. He envisions giving the victim a say in deciding whether to post the records publicly.

Beggs believes this policy would save time for the city clerk’s office and records clerks at the police department, who have to respond to multiple requests separately even if they are seeking the same information.

Cathcart agrees.

“It’s a time-saver for staff, but it also just increases accessibility and transparency to the public,” Cathcart said.

The new law would apply to the entire city, not just for the police department. For example, it would include public records requests for the emails of City Council members.

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