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New police information law threatens watchdog site

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Prior Restraints         Apr 8, 2002    

New police information law threatens watchdog site

  • The governor signed a bill last week that forbids the publication or posting of public information about police officers.

A Web site featuring the home addresses, phone numbers, salaries and, in some cases, maps to the houses of Washington state police officers became illegal on April 3 after the governor signed a bill that regulates public information that can be disclosed about police officers.

Proponents of the bill describe the measure as protection for police officers and their families, but the Web site’s engineer, Bill Sheehan, calls the bill “anti-Bill Sheehan legislation” aimed specifically at eliminating his site.

Sheehan describes his Web site, JusticeFiles.org, as a public tool for watching and holding accountable local police officers in Kirkland, Wash. He claims the Kirkland Police Department has covered up several officers’ criminal records, and he said the public needs to be aware when police officers do something unlawful.

Sheehan said he obtained all the information on his Web site legally using public records searches. He said he was amazed at how easy it was to obtain the information. And because he obtained it from public sources, Sheehan said there is no reason why the information should not be republished.

He also said information about police officers should be publishable since the same information about the general public is publishable and widely available.

But Scott Armstrong, a spokesman for Washington state Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, who supports the bill, said the Web site is “one-stop shopping” for information about police officers, which encourages those offended by officers to pursue them and seek retribution.

Armstrong said more protection should be extended to police officers and their families because they are “putting their lives on the line for other families.”

The bill, S.B. 6700, which will become law on June 10, says: “A person or organization shall not, with the intent to harm or intimidate, sell, trade, give, publish, distribute or otherwise release the residential address, residential telephone number, birth date or social security number of any law enforcement-related, corrections officer-related, or court-related employee or volunteer or someone with a similar name, and categorize them as such, without the express written permission of the employee or volunteer unless specifically exempted by law or court order.”

The conflict over Sheehan’s Web site has existed for more than a year now. Initially, Sheehan posted the Social Security numbers of some police officers on his Web site. But Judge Robert H. Alsdorf of King County, Wash., in May 2001, ruled that the Social Security numbers had to be deleted. Alsdorf said publishing the police officers’ phone numbers and home addresses was distasteful but covered by the First Amendment.

“This state and all the police departments need to stop worrying about me and start dealing with their departments,” Sheehan said. “The departments have shown here that they can’t police themselves.”

(S.B. 6700) KG


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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