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Originally published Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 6:06 PM

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Judge upholds SPD dash-cam policy but still levies fine

A King County judge has fined the Seattle Police Department for withholding records from a television reporter and criticized a policy that allows police to destroy some dash-camera videos before they can be released. But he said the policy is legal.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle Police Department's video-retention policy — which allows most police dash-camera videos to be kept secret until destroyed — poses a "Catch 22" and is contrary to the intent of the state Public Disclosure Act, but doesn't violate it, according to a King County Superior Court judge.

The ruling comes in a case filed last year by KOMO-TV reporter Tracy Vedder over access to the videos.

Judge Jim Rogers rejected Vedder's contention that the department's failure to turn over logs of dash-cam videos when she asked for them was intentional or malicious.

Still, Rogers fined police for failing to turn over the logs quickly. The fine is roughly $2,300 — $25 a day for about 94 days the department delayed, in violation of the Public Disclosure Act, and Rogers ordered the city to pay Vedder's attorney fees, which will likely be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

He found the department failed to give Vedder logs of the videos, which would have been responsive to her request.

But Rogers sided with the Police Department and its contention that the state's privacy law trumps the Public Disclosure Act, and found that the city can lawfully delay disclosure of dash-camera videos until the "final disposition" of any civil or criminal proceedings.

The city has interpreted this to mean it can withhold the release of the recordings for up to three years — the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits — which coincides with the department's retention policy.

The department does retain videos needed for prosecutions, and those involved in internal-affairs complaints, or when they are the subject of a lawsuit filed before the three-year deadline.

The upshot has been that the videos can be legally destroyed by police before they can be released through the Public Disclosure Act.

Rogers, in his ruling, said Vedder and KOMO-TV are correct in arguing this poses a "Catch 22" for anyone seeking dash-camera videos, particularly given that it can take significant time to make, refine and complete a public-disclosure request.

"The three-year records retention policy is contrary to the (Public Disclosure Act) as regards to in-car videos," Rogers wrote, but he declined to strike down either the policy or the underlying privacy law because of the conflict.

KOMO attorney Judith Endejan said she believes Rogers "misinterpreted" the privacy act and said the judge is denying citizens "access to a vital tool for police accountability."

She noted that the U.S. Department of Justice relied on videos in finding that the Police Department was routinely and illegally using excess force. Rogers' ruling will mean less scrutiny when more is needed, she said.

Assistant City Attorney Mary Perry, who argued the case for the Police Department, called the judge's ruling a "real victory." She said that, despite the policy allowing videos to be destroyed after three years, they are generally kept longer.

As for the retention policy, Perry said, the city would consider other options if they were feasible. But the sheer number of recordings — amounting to terabytes of data — makes any retention policy a challenge.

Vedder eventually received logs of the dash-camera videos, and KOMO aired stories about alleged police abuses that turned up on some of the videos.

The city had been waiting for Rogers' ruling because it is defending similar lawsuits. Perry said the ruling should help the city in those cases.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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