This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
State Rep. Lynn Kessler’s bill to seal information about people who work in the criminal justice system got absolutely nowhere last legislative session.
This year, it’s sailing through the House as lawmakers scramble to assist law enforcement in the wake of six cop killings.
The only problem: House Bill 1317 wouldn’t do anything to protect police officers from killers. It would, however, protect law enforcement agencies from public accountability.
The legislation is billed as a way to keep gangs and organized crime from compiling databases of law enforcement personnel. Even if that were happening – sponsors and supporters can’t cite any cases – HB 1317 would do nothing to prevent it.
State law already protects public employees’ privacy, exempting their home addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security number and other information that could identify family members.
If criminals are getting that information, it’s not from government files. Anyone with an Internet connection and few bucks can download such personal details – and they don’t have to bother with the arduous process of pursuing a public disclosure request.
This bill won’t roll back the digital age. All it would do is exempt from public disclosure the birthdates and photographs contained in criminal justice employees’ personnel files. That information will still be available elsewhere to any thug, ordinary citizen or reporter who wanted to find it.
So what’s the big deal about excluding it in personnel file releases? The big deal is that personnel files are one of the primary ways to monitor law enforcement for abuses and misconduct.
After Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot his wife, personnel files were used to find other instances of domestic-violence complaints against officers. They are used to expose agencies that fail to punish criminal behavior in their ranks, to uncover abuses of pension and disability programs, and to identify specific officers accused of shirking their duty or worse.
The legislation is most decidedly not about protecting officers’ personal safety, or lawmakers wouldn’t be narrowly targeting only one government record – the one that is so pivotal to ensuring public accountability.
Law enforcement depends on public trust to do its job well. That trust would be weakened if the Legislature shields all employees of criminal justice agencies from scrutiny under the guise of protecting the lives of police officers.