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Sheriff's office must disclose officer names and salary information

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    NMU         WASHINGTON         Freedom of Information         Dec 4, 2002    

Sheriff’s office must disclose officer names and salary information

  • A court of appeals ruled that the King County Sheriff cannot block disclosure of information about police employees to a Web site publisher.

An appeals court in Seattle ruled Nov. 12 that the King County Sheriff must disclose full names of police officers and salary information to the publisher of a Web site.

In May 2000, William Sheehan, who operates, a Web site containing information about police in Washington, requested the names, titles and salaries of all law enforcement officers in several Washington jurisdictions.

The King County Sheriff’s Office refused to comply with the request, citing privacy and law enforcement exemptions to the state’s open records law. The sheriff’s office, in arguing what harm would be caused by disclosure, looked beyond the direct impact of the requested information and said that “it was possible to obtain officers’ home addresses and other personal information via the public access section of the King County Assessor’s Office.”

In November 2000, the King County Superior Court ordered the county to provide only the last names and rank of all county police officers. It awarded attorney fees to the Web site operators, but denied them any statutory penalties. Sheehan’s suit was joined by another Web site operator, Aaron Rosenstein, who helped Sheehan set up his Web site and whose request for the same information also was denied by the sheriff’s office.

The appeals court said Nov. 12 that the lower court erred in its decision. It held that the public records act did not exempt from disclosure the full names of the officers and it ordered the county to pay at least the minimal statutory penalty, which starts at $5 per day that a request is not filled.

The appeals court also said that the county had a long policy of releasing the information and that “we can only conclude that the requests of Sheehan and Rosenstein were denied because of who these men are — both operate controversial websites that are critical to police, and Sheehan, at least, has heretofore published home addresses of police officers on his web site.”

The court noted that the lower court’s decision runs counter to the state attorney general’s interpretation of the public records law, which states: “A decision to permit inspection [of public records] cannot be based on the identity of the requester or the stated purpose, if any, of the request.”

Sheehan’s intended use, the court ruled, could not be a basis for denying disclosure.

“To conclude otherwise would be to allow agencies to deny access to public records to its most vocal critics, while supplying the same information to its friends,” wrote Judge Faye C. Kennedy in the appeals court decision.

“There’s going to be no secret police state in Washington,” said Elena Garella, Sheehan’s attorney. “The fact that a person’s name could lead to additional information about that person is not a concern the government should have regarding restricting information about its employees.”

Garella noted that the implications of the case go beyond Sheehan’s Web site. Other media in Washington were concerned about the implications of limited access to police information.

Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, Inc., a non-profit association that represents 27 daily newspapers in Washington and the Washington Bureaus of The Associated Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case arguing that information about police officers is necessary for the public and press to evaluate the criminal justice system.

“[Police officers] are granted extraordinary power, authority, and discretion. The granting of this power comes with a recognized right to know about the actions of public employees in the criminal justice system,” the media brief states. “The County’s impermissible withholding of employee names threatens the ability of the public and the press to perform this role.”

(King County v. William A. Sheehan; Counsel: Elena L. Garella, Seattle; Media counsel (amici): Michael Killeen, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle) JL

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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