The Seattle Police Department is under all kinds of pressure to clean up the way it treats the citizenry. The feds are after it for brutality, often after jaywalking violations. City Council members have grilled Harry Bailey, the interim police chief, over decisions to punish errant officers with wrist slaps.
But I’d tell you the department’s problems are a lot more basic than that. For instance, the SPD has absolutely no idea whatsoever from its own records how many traffic tickets are written for specific offenses, especially but hardly limited to jaywalking.
Don’t believe me? Well, I now have that in writing from the department itself.
“The Seattle Police Department does not currently compile the type of records you have requested,” the agency’s Public Disclosure Unit said in an email to me yesterday. The note was in the name of Bailey and the person in the unit who actually wrote and sent it. In a follow-up note this morning, she wrote, “We could find out how many citations were issued by SPD … but we do not keep stats as to how many were issued for each type of violation.” I’m going to spare some professional embarrassment and not identify her here.
As someone who remains New To Seattle, I am still trying to figure out the way city government works. My quest to ascertain some rather elementary information has not been very fruitful, but it certainly has given me insight into the way the wheels grind here.
My search for traffic ticket data began as a follow-up to a post I wrote in late 2011 about the large number of jaywalking tickets written in Seattle. The rough way that some cops deal with jaywalkers–you can watch incidents on YouTube here and here–was specifically cited by the U.S. Department of Justice in a report (on page 10) about the SPD.
In 2010, the SPD issued 1,570 jaywalking tickets, up 23% from 2009’s 1,274. I wanted to see what the subsequent trend was in this violation category that has caused so much trouble, bad publicity–and for Seattle taxpayers, expense.
The numbers for 2009 and 2010 came from the annual Traffic Report for 2010, issued by the Seattle Department of Transportation. A table on the 27th page of the 69-page document purported to summarize “2009-2010 Seattle Police Department – Traffic Section Citations.” In case the sourcing wasn’t obvious from the heading, a footnote said the source was “SPD Traffic Section Citation Data.” A jaywalking ticket is classified as a “pedestrian traffic infraction.”
The Traffic Report for 2011 (on the 26th page of the 80-page document) said jaywalking tickets for 2011 rose to 1,635. That’s a more modest 4% increase–but still an increase.
What about the data for 2012? I still don’t know.
In January (of 2014) I started looking around for a traffic report for 2012. Even though that calendar year had ended more than a year earlier, SDOT hadn’t bothered to post the report online. But days after I inquired via email, SDOT finally threw it up on the web.
Guess what? The traffic citation table was gone–completely missing in action.
I immediately asked SDOT about the omission. “A decision was made to not include the Traffic Enforcement section in the 2012 Traffic Report,” an SDOT official wrote me on January 24. “All data provided in the Traffic Enforcement section originated with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and as such they are best positioned to report on this data. You can contact SPD directly with inquires for data previously presented in the Traffic Enforcement section of Seattle Traffic Reports.”
In a follow-up email, I pressed for more more details about the reasoning behind the decision to cut the table. “I am wondering whether there could be a P.R. element to this,” I openly wondered, provocatively hinting of a possible cover-up.
The SDOT official wouldn’t take the bait. “You will note that prior to 2010 the Traffic Report did not include any data on enforcement,” he wrote. I will charitably call this an incorrect statement, as can be ascertained rather quickly from the inclusion of a Traffic Section Citations table on page 16 of the 2009 Traffic Report.
Visitors to this site know that I have written from time to time about the twin local phenomenons of Seattle Freeze and Seattle Nice. To these, I now add a third one: the Seattle Run-Around.
Following the SDOT suggestion, I contacted the SPD’s Public Affairs office. At first I was told on the phone that SPD did not supply the statistics to SDOT (notwithstanding the “SPD Traffic Section Citation Data” credit) and that Seattle Municipal Court would be the best source.
But then out of the blue, I received an email from someone else in the SPD’s Public Affairs operation. “We would be happy to compile the data for you,” the note read. “Please understand that we don’t have any documents at our fingertips right now and that we would need to produce them. As such, this may be take some time. As a necessary first step, I am forwarding your email to our Public Request Unit to get the process started.” A later note said, “I think the response that you received earlier from Public Affairs may have been a simple understanding.”
Coming from the uniformed folks who publicly handed out Doritos to potheads in marijuana-friendly Seattle, this all sounded encouraging. Still, I didn’t see the reason why a simple request for data published in previous years had to be elevated to a formal freedom of information act request. While expressing thanks, I wrote that “I have to think” that such data is routinely compiled “if for no other reason than budgeting.” As I composed that note, I also had in mind I have never lived in a town with more computing capacity, and more data stored on computers, than Seattle.
So you can imagine my surprise when–after more than a month–I was told yesterday the SPD just doesn’t keep track of that kind of detail. “We apologize for any earlier confusion.” The note said the lack of data was “verified through the Lieutenant of the SPD Traffic Unit.”
I haven’t had any luck yet with getting information out of Seattle Municipal Court, but I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, I’d say Ed Murray, the new mayor, really has his hands full with reforming the police. I just hope he’s not prone to jaywalking.