By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Block Watch captains around the city were startled back in November when SPD revealed their names had been provided to someone who requested them under terms of the state Public Records Act.
That’s part of the reason why the West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network invited SPD’s new director of transparency and privacy, Mary Perry, to its monthly meeting this past Tuesday.
But that wasn’t the only issue the group discussed with her. First, though, as always, the meeting at the Southwest Precinct opened with an update on local crime trends:
CRIME TRENDS: Car prowls are the number-one crime problem in West Seattle, said precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis. He reiterated – don’t leave anything in your vehicle. Putting something out of sight is not prevention – “thieves know (where you stash stuff),” he warned. Also, thinking you’ll deter them from breaking into your car by leaving it unlocked isn’t a smart strategy either. SPD occasionally puts flyers on windshields to remind people of prevention tips. Much of the serial property criminals are trying to get money to feed a drug habit, he noted, and the stolen items will be fenced/pawned almost immediately.
What about bait cars? Capt. Davis was asked. He said they’ve been tried, but weren’t effective – the thieves somehow knew to avoid them.
Another question involved people going door to door with implausible stories, and whether those people might actually be casing. It happened twice in one neighborhood, and the descriptions were different. Yes, those people work in teams, the captain affirmed. Overall, though, burglary is down 14 percent from this time last year.
Who should be called if you have concerns about ongoing suspicious activity but not proof of something? was another question. Contact the Community Police Team, replied the Captain.
Are surveillance cameras helpful in solving crimes? They can be, Davis said, especially if police get fingerprints to match with the image.
DIRECTOR OF TRANSPARENCY AND PRIVACY: Mary Perry told the attendees that she’s been with the city for about a decade; the announcement of her hiring mentions her background as a lawyer and a U.S. Navy veteran. She is tasked with dealing with the department’s Public Records Act obligations, among other things.
And those obligations are numerous.
The department had more than 9,000 public-disclosure requests last year, a 64% increase, representing 70 percent of the public-records request the city receives – and SPD has “the most sensitive records to deal with.” The purpose of the Public Records Act is “open government,” though courts and the Legislature are not subject to it, she noted. But the intent is so “the people have access to the records of their government and know what’s going on.” A request for records is not the same as a request for information, she said. “People may request thousands of records at a time, and we have to deal with that. … Who can make requests? Anyone.” Also, she notes, they can’t ask why people are requesting records. They have to provide “fullest assistance”; “all records are presumed to be disclosable – it’s our burden to prove they’re not.”
She again stressed that SPD is “really slammed with requests right now,” and said that’s why she has this job – to help deal with the backlog.
And she noted that they can’t charge much for what they provide – even a disc, for example, would cost about a dollar. If they violate the Public Records Act, they can be penalized, and have to pay attorney’s fees and costs. (She went through a few examples of tough judgments against governments found in violation.) “Strict compliance” is required. Last year, compliance cost at least a million dollars, and that’s just the public-disclosure unit staff time.
So what does “privacy” mean under the PRA?
“Even if the privacy exemption applies, the information is exempt only if disclosure (1) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.”
She mentioned that they are generating thousands of videos via body-worn cameras and will generate thousands more. There is no automatic way to redact (cover) someone’s face – it must be done by hand. Even if a privacy exemption applies, “an agency may only redact the individual’s identity and must disclose the rest of the record.”
She eventually got to the man who requested the Block Watch Captains’ list. “We interpreted the request …” and found an exemption of residential addresses, phone numbers, personal wireless phone numbers, e-mail addresses, social security numbers, emergency contact information “of employees or volunteers of a public agency.” Volunteers’ names are not exempt.
She also sought to provide a little light on other circumstances in which you might wind up part of a public record that would have to be made public – if you e-mail a public official, for example. Unless there was a huge reason why your communication should remain private – it’s subject to being requested.
A couple other situations she had been asked to address:
The information given to the emergency notification system (Alert Seattle) – it’s in a database that’s not even kept in the city. But your information is exempt until it’s used in an emergency response, Perry said. “People get really concerned about their information being out there in public records … but the bad guys are not making public-records requests,” she said.
They talked more about the Block Watch Captains list information requester. One attendee says she got the spreadsheet with all the names … “and I never should have seen it.”
Robust discussion ensued about their contact information being available. Bottom line is that it’s sort of a principle. “You gotta understand, this is a very popular act. The media likes it. Requesters valiantly defend it.” She said she testified before the Legislature twice this year, including once relating to an avalanche of requests – that bill died, but she thinks another one about body cameras has a chance at passing.
That led to a mention of police dashcams, with video made public of the deadly shooting of Che Taylor days earlier. “That was too much information,” one attendee lamented. But, said Perry, it’s important that it be available – for “openness” sake.
Then the current controversy over the city’s “partnership” with Nextdoor.com came up – and one woman identifying herself as a neighborhood “lead” said she’s not so sure that its verification process is secure – she said she is asked to verify prospective members, but she “doesn’t know everyone” in the area. Another concern was raised about how secure it is, with people’s names, with the names of people who were invited but decided not to participate, and more.
The leaders of WSBWCN say they’re concerned about the Nextdoor-only “Town Hall” that SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole did recently, about the concept of a public official taking to a private, members-only online forum.
That included discussion of independent journalist Erica C. Barnett reporting on the forum and finding her membership suspended by Nextdoor corporate reps because she excerpted some of what was posted during the “town hall.”
Asked one person at the WSBWCN meeting, “How was that different from going to a public meeting? Wouldn’t you expect that what you say might be public?”
The situation has resulted in Mayor Murray saying that he will re-examine the city’s partnership with the company (here’s Barnett’s report on that), which Perry mentioned during the discussion here. She also noted that, even aside from online participation like that, so much of your “private” information is actually public – if you vote, own property, have taken other actions of participation in society, a lot of information about you is easily accessible.
“There’s no privacy,” one attendee observed at that point.
SPD does actually take some steps to protect the identities of victims and people who report crimes, and this in turn affects the work that we do – before the text of a police report is made public in any form, including being released to a reporter, it is supposed to be “redacted,” with names blocked out, and addresses reduced to the block numbers of streets, and other personal information removed. This is a time-consuming task, currently done by hand, and it’s the reason why we are not able to access nearly as many police reports as we would like to, in order to report and publish followup stories. Perry told us that Tim Clemans, the technologist who has worked with the department off and on to help it figure out automated ways of doing this for text and video, is helping SPD with this issue again right now. (Clemans confirms this.)
The West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network usually meets on fourth Tuesdays, 6:30 pm, at the precinct (2300 SW Webster). Watch wsblockwatchnet.wordpress.com for updates.