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Open Data Activists Reach Settlements With Seattle Police, Others

Over the past several years, the Center for Open Policing has sued the city of Seattle, the State Patrol and the Tacoma Police Department over access to public records and strategically rolled the resulting financial victories into its work.

(TNS) -- When the Center for Open Policing recently reached a settlement with the city of Seattle that garnered it more than $30,000 and access to GPS data on the location of police vehicles, it was the latest in a string of legal victories for the shoestring organization.

Over the past several years, the organization has sued the city of Seattle, the State Patrol and the Tacoma Police Department over access to public records and strategically rolled the resulting financial victories into its work.

The three activists behind the Seattle-based group — Eric Rachner, 39; Phil Mocek, 41; and Ben Livingston, 36 — are computer-software whizzes whose personal brushes with the law fueled their efforts, forged their bond and led them to join forces in 2012.

While some might see them as zealots, they say they are not anti-police and are motivated by a desire to keep public-record requirements strong, hold government officials accountable and shed light on police business and bad cops.

“All officers aren’t bad,” Livingston said. “Most, the vast majority of police officers, are good at their job and they try really hard and we really need them and really want them. And then there’s a handful of people that seem to get a lot of citizen complaints.”

Livingston cites his longtime work as a cannabis activist and various police encounters as influencing his efforts. But it was a traffic citation in 2012 for using a cellphone that squarely landed him in the public-records arena.

Although the ticket was upheld, Livingston eventually won a $23,000 settlement in a public-records lawsuit brought by the Center for Open Policing against the State Patrol over the denial of patrol-car video he sought in his case.

“I don’t think what happened to me was really right,” Livingston said. “It’s a very small thing in the scope of life, right, in the scope of what happens to many people. But it’s an example that illustrates the larger problem to me. Like, if this small thing can happen over a cellphone violation, what happens when something … bad happens?”

Half the money went for attorney fees, Livingston collected $500 and the rest was set aside to continue the organization’s work, according to Livingston.

Rachner then used some of the money to make a down payment of about $2,100 on a sweeping request in 2013 for Seattle police records related to internal investigations and discipline of officers, which, he said, remains ongoing. He recalls the payment as an “empowering moment.”

Mocek said he learned the value of public records while working on drug-policy reform.

He became a “victim of police misconduct,” he said, when he was arrested by police at the Albuquerque, N.M., airport in a highly publicized 2009 incident that began when he tried to board without identification.

Passengers are not required to produce an official form of identification but must be able to confirm their identity through and would be subject to additional screening, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Mocek recorded of the encounter with a handheld camera. A jury watched the video and heard testimony about the identification rules, according to Mocek. Jurors found him not guilty of four charges, including disorderly conduct.

Rachner’s activism traces to his 2008 arrest for allegedly obstructing Seattle police, who stopped him and a group of computer-security experts as they swatted giant sponge balls from bar to bar in game of urban golf.

The case was ultimately dismissed and, in 2010, he won a $60,000 public-disclosure judgment against the police department for falsely denying it had patrol-car video of his arrest as well as logs of the recordings.

Rachner recalls getting into “epic fights” with the department over records, at a time when it was regularly losing court battles over public-disclosure requests. But the climate has changed for the better, with access to video logs and the arrival of Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole in June 2014, he said.

Public agencies in Washington are required by law to produce records unless they cite a valid exemption. If they improperly refuse or fail to provide the materials in a timely fashion, they can be sued and subject to fines and legal costs.

The Seattle Police Department has taken steps to improve its disclosure of information, dovetailing with efforts to meet federally mandated reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing required under a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.

The issue has become more pronounced in recent years, with the advent of patrol-car video and now the arrival of body cameras. Technology has sometimes outpaced the desire of many police officials, pitting their efforts to be more transparent against privacy concerns and the ability to keep up with soaring demands for records.

The three activists, who operate a between their computer-related jobs, are building what they bill as a first-ever, searchable on officers investigated by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

It allows an entry point for people, including defense attorneys, to look at the history of officers by name, the type of incident and other data, Livingston said.

In the GPS case, the city of Seattle agreed to pay the settlement over its refusal to release the location data of police cars.

Mocek requested the GPS data in 2013, saying it could show whether police cars are fairly distributed throughout the city, The Associated Press reported last month. The police department refused, arguing it would require complicated computer programming to turn over the data.

Mocek, who maintained the department could easily copy the plain text files, sued last year.

“This data belongs to the public,” his complaint said. “The citizenry deserves to know where the patrol cars go, how frequently, where they are used, and how often.”

In the Oct. 1 settlement, the city agreed to provide the data subject to certain redactions, including data revealing home addresses of officers or possibly locations of domestic-violence shelters, The Associated Press reported. It agreed to pay nearly $18,000 to Mocek and the Center for Open Policing, as well as more than $12,000 for legal fees and costs.

Mocek said people sometimes think blanket requests for all records are excessive. The explanation: The data is crucial to identifying trends, he said.

Rachner said the GPS data is going to “open up a whole new level of visibility into SPD patrol operations,” allowing analysis of police coverage neighborhood by neighborhood and shift to shift.

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the police department, said of the organization’s work: “Our department values transparency. We’ve had three employees who have received … awards from the Washington Coalition for Open Government and we believe the Center for Open Policing can be a partner as we strive to make police records publicly available.”

The center’s founders want to expand their efforts and grow statewide, offering their methods and knowledge of automation. But they admit that will require help from others.

Meanwhile, the center is suing the Tacoma Police Department, alleging it wrongly denied a request to disclose details of its agreement with the FBI allowing the department to use a controversial cellphone-tracking device called a Stingray.

Although the records were recently provided, the suit demands financial penalties for the delay, Livingston said.

©2015 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.