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Originally published Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 4:00 PM

Guest columnist

Seattle police records increasingly less accessible for public accountability

Guest columnist Tomas Guillen writes about changes in how the Seattle Police Department provides information to the public in its incident reports. He argues the digitally available reports are superficial at best, making it difficult for the public, journalists and others to know what is going on.

Special to The Times

quotes Your tax dollars at work........... Read more
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DURING the past few years, Seattle police officers have been involved in countless controversial incidents that have caught the attention of residents, activists and journalists.

During those same years, the Seattle Police Department has been creating a disturbing crime-information system that is far more ominous than the high-profile cases that grabbed headlines.

Why should people be more concerned?

Seattle police are using digital tools to release police reports lacking critical information, making citizens more vulnerable to criminal activities.

Disappointingly, this disconcerting action has attracted little opposition. Citizens are not protesting in the streets. Activists are not calling on politicians to act. Journalists are not joining forces to demand input.

Traditionally, access to crime information revolved around the police "incident report," a two-page summary that provided details of the crime and a narrative of the interaction between the victims and suspects. The report played a pivotal role in this country's democratic form of government. It facilitated:

• A free-flow of information to promote discourse on crimes that affect citizens;

• Transparency of a major local government function — law enforcement.

Individual citizens have used incident reports to be vigilant in staying aware of criminal activities in their neighborhoods. Activists have focused on these reports when investigating patterns of police brutality. Journalists have depended on the reports to write news stories and analyze police behavior and efficiency in fighting crime.

In implementing a digital-access system over the past two years, Seattle police adversely affected who has access and what will be released. The problem is clear in the comparison of the paper incident report used in the past to the digital incident report available today.

For decades Seattle police offered daily crime activity via paper crime-incident reports. The reports were copied after every police shift and made available 24 hours a day. The paper report revealed details about the crime, the relationship between the victims and suspects, and initial police action.

The first page consisted of the victim's name, race, address and date of birth; witness name, race, address and date of birth; suspect name (if known), race, address and date of birth; the location of the crime; and specifics of any arrest. The second page was a narrative describing the crime and the actions of each victim, witness and suspect. The narrative often included quotes from involved parties. Finally, the reports identified the officer who responded to the incident.

Under the new system, the police make crime information and digital crime incident reports available via a sophisticated website (http://web1.seattle.gov/mnm/policereports.aspx). After visitors create an account, they are allowed to use a digital map with icons that designate specific crimes in specific neighborhoods.

Upon pointing the mouse on a specific icon, a pop-up square appears with information about the crime. The vast majority of the pop-ups simply list a case number for the crime, the date of the crime and a vague location. Occasionally, a pop-up reveals a link that states: "View Police Report." This link often will take you to reports that offer few or no details and no names.

In brief, people are given the illusion they are getting substantial access, but the information is superficial, rendering it meaningless.

Even more disconcerting is a decision by Seattle police to exclude from the digital system several crimes, including sexual assaults. Those crimes used to be divulged and continue to be available in digital systems in other cities, such as Madison, Wis.

SPD's digital system detracts from transparency and brings into question police credibility.

SPD should take to heart the words of President Abraham Lincoln: Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe. It is time for local citizens, activists and journalists to aggressively seek a system that better serves the concept of open government.

Tomas Guillen is a journalism professor at Seattle University. He is a former Seattle Times reporter.

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