Seattle Times watchdog waits 11 months for police’s purposefully withheld memo
Mike Carter is proud to call himself a watchdog at The Seattle Times.
After all, they’re an endangered breed in U.S. newsrooms, where tight budgets mean tighter leashes on reporters likely to rack up hefty legal fees in their investigations and exposures.
But in his latest bout to obtain public information from the Seattle Police Department, Carter earned $20,000 for the Times without ever setting foot in court.
After a quest for a police memorandum lingered on for 11 months, Carter learned the department purposefully withheld it from the Times, violating Washington’s Public Records Act, so the police paid the Times a settlement to avoid a lawsuit.
Even so, Carter says when it comes to purging public information from government agencies and law enforcement, it’s never about the money.
“It’s a principle sort of thing,” Carter said.
On May Day 2012, a day of violent workers’ rights demonstrations, Carter and fellow reporter Steve Miletich were on the story, and by 11 a.m. Carter could tell the police weren’t prepared.
Earlier that morning, Assistant Chief Mike Sanford intercepted control of police operations and confused officers when he limited how much pepper spray they could use. He also told them not to make any arrests in the uproarious crowd.
As a noontime march grew increasingly violent, protesters tore through traffic, smashing storefronts and car windows with sticks.
When the police arrived, Sanford further complicated matters by charging the crowd in his business attire— white button up, black pants and dress shoes—without any protective gear.
He was assaulted, and other officers had to use force to rescue him, upsetting the community that the police’s own officer diverted their attention from protesters pillaging the streets.
Having reported on the police department since 2000, Carter knew Seattle Police Precinct Capt. Joe Kessler would be furious. At the time of the protests, Seattle police were already under the watchful eye of the Justice Department for their “unnecessary and excessive” use of force in a series of 2009-2010 incidents. Mishandling May Day only made matters worse.
Sources told Carter that Kessler sent a scathing internal memorandum to two police officers criticizing the department’s rash actions.
As more sources mentioned the “Kessler memo,” Carter began to see it as the missing puzzle piece the public needed to understand how their law enforcement had failed them.
Since it was subject to public disclosure, he was determined to wrestle it free from the control of police who held it out of view.
After SPD Chief John Diaz mentioned the memo, Carter and Miletich published an article on July 23, 2012 telling the public everything he knew about it. Carter purposefully filed a public disclosure request the same day.
“We wanted to amp the pressure up and shake the memo loose,” Carter said.
Sources told him the memo was only addressed to deputy chiefs Nick Metz and Clark Kimerer, so when Carter filed for disclosure, he cast a net “clearly intended to capture the Kessler memo,” asking for all emails, attachments, documents and memoranda involving May Day planning and response from all SPD captains and lieutenants involved.
He thought it would be easy to get because there’s no exemption in the Public Records Act for embarrassment.
“That’s what the Kessler memo was—embarrassment,” Carter said. “They had a captain being specifically critical of his superior over what could be called a debacle in their department.”
According to protocol, the department sent him a letter July 30 acknowledging they’d received his request, but they twice delayed their deadline to disclose the information until Sept. 17.
That’s when the documents started pouring in.
For the next eight months, Carter and Miletich combed through pages upon pages of tangled email strings and repetitive police reports. But the Kessler memo was still missing.
Carter suspected the police were waiting to reveal the memo until they filed their own (long overdue) after action report to counterbalance bad press the memo might arouse.
But when the SPD finally released their report on April 3, 2013, the Kessler memo never came.
Instead, Carter got an email from the department, saying they had fulfilled his request, and they were closing it.
At first he thought it was a mistake.
“I thought they forgot because I could not believe they were not going to actually give it to me,” Carter said.
He filed an email appeal with Diaz that morning, and when he confronted Diaz at a city council meeting that afternoon, the officer admitted the department intentionally withheld the memo. He sent Carter a copy later that day.
“But at that point, the damage had been done,” Carter said. “They were in clear violation of the law.”
That’s when decisions about the newspaper’s next steps fell to Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman, who met with First Amendment attorney Eric Stahl and Times investigations editor James Neff.
“We came to the very quick conclusion that we couldn’t let the SPD get away with it,” Boardman said. “It was so blatant that we really had to call them on it.”
The Times sent a letter of intent to the police department on May 9 telling them they had a choice: either they could pay a $20,000 settlement or the Times would take them to court.
Boardman said the SPD was “quickly responsive and surprisingly open.” They worked with the Times’ attorney to pay the fee.
“We were not interested in asking for that amount of money to enrich us in any way or make tax payers angry with us,” Boardman said. “But we did want a big enough number to pay (potential) legal bills and send a clear message to the department that said, ‘You can’t get away with this. Don’t do it again.’”
Boardman gives credit to the Times’ owners for never shying away from costly legal disputes.
He said stories like Carter’s and Miletich’s are every news organization’s best defense against government agencies and public employees unions who are always looking to limit public access to records and free information.
“We’re able to pull out important investigative stories and successfully fight off those changes,” Boardman said. “We tell them, ‘You can’t do that because then we can’t tell these stories.’”
Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.